16th October 2017 marks the United Nations World Food Day. This annual day of action raises awareness of food security, nutrition and hunger around the world, examining how the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger (“to end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”) can be achieved by 2030.
However, the challenges of food security cannot be addressed without also thinking about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), as global hunger targets cannot be met until WASH is available in the world’s poorest communities. Hunger, nutrition and WASH are closely linked as, for example, the World Health Organisation estimates that 50% of malnutrition cases are associated with repeat diarrhoea or intestinal worm infections as a result of unsafe water, inadequate sanitation or insufficient hygiene. This World Food Day, we explore the relationship between food and water, as well as some of the ways that WASH is critical to achieving zero hunger by 2030.
Research in developing communities has shown that the daily task of water collection often falls on the shoulder of the women of a household, who can spend a number of hours each day just walking to often dirty or contaminated sources of water. As well as leading to various water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea or cholera, this can lower their agricultural productivity by limiting the amount of time that can be spent on farm-work or other tasks, such as cooking nutritious meals.
Many farmers in developing countries work solely as subsistence farmers, meaning that they only grow enough food to feed themselves and their household, rather than farming for trade or commercial purposes. In Tanzania, over 50% of farmers are solely subsistence farmers. Therefore, a long-distance walk to water sources or falling sick from water-borne disease can dramatically lower the food security and nutrition intake of an individual’s household, family or children. Furthermore, when a large amount of time is dedicated to water collection, the decreased opportunity to participate in other income-generating activities can limit the ability of a household to purchase food.
Furthermore, limited knowledge on and access to safely managed sanitation services can lead to poor hygiene practices, such as open defecation near crops or using untreated wastewater on agricultural crops. This can both increase the risk of water-borne disease and lower food production levels through crop contamination.
Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Effective agriculture and food production requires a reliable source of safely managed water. Many farmers in developing countries have typically relied on seasonal rainfall patterns and regional weather patterns to grow food throughout the year. For example, subsistence farmers in East Africa are strongly reliant on the rainy season to provide enough water for their crops to grow and then be harvested in the dry season. The impacts of climate change have, however, led to rising temperatures, unpredictable rainfall patterns and more frequent drought periods, causing increasing food insecurity across the region of East Africa. Sea-level rise, as a result of climate change, also threatens to contaminate fresh ground water supplies and agricultural land with saltwater in low-lying coastal areas, such as Mozambique or Sierra Leone. Access to WASH significantly increases the resilience of a community and their adaptive capacity to climate change. Irrigation, which is the artificial application of water to food crops in times of scarcity often through water channels, is an important food security adaptation strategy that can increase agricultural productivity and help food grow in times of water scarcity.
World Food Day 2017 offers an important opportunity to show that zero hunger can be a reality, but it is essential that the significant links between WASH and food security are recognised in order for this to be achieved by 2030.