Water and cross-sectoral collaboration are key to food system transformations

By Jack Durrell, Communications Consultant for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems

Photo: Solar Irrigation — IWMI Nepal — Nabin Baral

At a series of dialogues convened as part of the UNFSS preparatory process, experts argued that well-managed water systems and cross-sectoral collaboration are critically important measures to transform food systems and protect fragile ecosystems. The dialogues were organized by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), with significant input from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and many other national, regional and international partners.

Referring to the dialogues focus on equity and inclusion, Stefan Uhlenbrook, Program Director of WLE, commented: “As long as the poor are deprived of water and energy access for domestic and productive uses, food production and food value chains will remain under-developed and opportunities will be missed.”

Held at the global, national (Egypt and Pakistan) and regional (Southern Africa and Central Asia) levels, the events provided an opportunity for stakeholders to discuss the water–energy–food (WEF) nexus and sustainable food system transformations that promote equity and inclusion, protect the environment and secure more sustainable WEF systems. Insights will be presented at the UNFSS pre-meeting in July and at the Summit in September.

Pakistan: calls for more holistic approaches

Participants at the Pakistan dialogue called for a holistic approach to water management and a more reliable water resources database they could use to enhance food, water and energy security — in the fifth most climate-vulnerable country in the world.

The need for improved policy coherence among key ministries, through better inter-sectoral coordination and capacity building, was also raised, as was the need for greater awareness about the benefits of WEF nexus modelling among researchers, policymakers, government officials and farmers. Attendees further stressed the importance of interdisciplinary pilot projects to realize true systems transformation and WEF nexus operationalization.

Egypt: farmer-centric approaches

Egyptian participants argued that farmers need to be at the center of food systems transformations and called for improved multi-sectoral collaboration. Although water and agricultural experts work closely at the farm level, researchers and government officials continue to work in siloes, missing important opportunities for synergistic action.

Participants discussed the importance of using water more sustainably and further optimizing the use of irrigation water. Recommendations included direct incentives to farmers to conserve irrigation water, advancing the use of precision agricultural packages, reconsidering water-intensive crops, and encouraging private sector actors to work directly with farmers. In addition, there was support for a rethinking of Egyptian diets, which could be advanced through awareness raising and policy support.

Central Asia: innovation amid climate uncertainty

Creating the food systems that people want and need across Central Asia will depend in part on how water is managed under climate uncertainty, delegates at the Independent Dialogue in Central Asia concluded. Representatives from academia, government and NGOs highlighted the critical need for innovation, promotion and investment in smart water-saving technologies. Raising awareness among public and government stakeholders on the importance of the WEF nexus was also noted as a priority.

Given that water, through floods and droughts, wields significant power to disrupt food systems, the management of water risks was also considered imperative. Highlighting the importance of the diversification of cropping systems, participants further encouraged the introduction of heat- and drought-resistant crop varieties.

Southern Africa: data sharing, integration and innovative financing models

Enhanced data sharing across sectors and countries is vital to achieve food, water and energy security, participants at the Southern Africa dialogue argued. Participants also identified the importance of integrated approaches and highlighted the need for innovative financing models to better support food and water security.

The benefit of greater institutional coordination, specifically reconciling donor interests with nation state and institutional interests, was further raised, as was the importance of political will in enabling political transformations that move beyond inter-connected (WEF) sectors to also address the politics of water, climate change, energy and aid.

Global dialogue: making the link between water and food systems more explicit

Building on the national and regional dialogues, the Global Dialogue explored the inter-connections between food systems and their relations to other areas fundamental to the Sustainable Development Goals, such as energy, climate and the environment.

The Dialogue unpacked the major water challenges threatening local and international food systems and explored opportunities for making food systems more sustainable while protecting and restoring water systems.

Speaking at the opening of the dialogue, Agnes Kalibata, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to the Food Systems Summit, commented that despite its critical importance, water is often overlooked, and needs to be given a much higher priority as we approach the Summit: “Water is life. But it is one of the elements of the food system that is most taken for granted. Water is vital for agriculture and for peace and security. Put water front and center as you enter into these conversations.”

While it seems strange that water would be overlooked in discussions regarding the transformation of food systems, a recent paper noted that the current United Nations Decade of Action on Nutrition saw a link to water only in relation to domestic water use and sanitation, even though most water resources are used to produce food. In addition, the United Nations Water Action Decade was largely inward looking and did not consider how to strengthen key development outcomes linked to water, such as nutrition. Similarly, the game changing solutions proposed to date for the 2021 UNFSS almost entirely overlook the essentiality of water in transforming food systems, from production to consumption.

The need to prioritize water was a theme taken up by Claudia Sadoff, Managing Director for Research Delivery and Impact at the CGIAR. “The UNFSS is a once in a lifetime opportunity to support the transformation of food systems, future proofing them against climate shocks and pandemics; making them more inclusive and healthier; ending hunger and safeguarding the health of our planet. And so, making that explicit link between water and food systems is a message that we should ensure resonates loud and clear as we approach the pre-Summit in July and the Summit in September.”

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The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United Nations Food Systems Summit.

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