Estimated read time: Four minutes
Written in collaboration with Dr. Marie Connett, Sustainable Livelihoods Advisor with World Vision, and Hannah Chargin, policy advisor for Food Security and WASH with World Vision Advocacy.
No matter where you look in our world or what news channel you tune into, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: global crises lead to greater hunger and food insecurity. Whether it’s conflict that leads to refugee populations with no access to their usual resources, natural disasters and climate change that lead to drought, floods that spread diarrheal diseases, communities experiencing little to no water access, or supply chain disruptions resulting from COVID-19 — the result and underlying danger is always disruptions in availability of safe water and nutritious food, and increased levels of hunger and malnutrition. 45 million people in 43 countries are on the edge of starvation, and 21 million are children. The Ukraine crisis represents a critical moment within the global food and market systems, making the situation more dire than ever: Ukraine alone provides more than half of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) wheat supply, and World Vision is WFP’s largest partner in food distribution to developing countries.
What can be done to address this crisis? It may seem like another issue in itself (and it is) but we can strengthen food security by prioritizing safe, clean access to water in communities. In honor of World Water Day, let’s look at the role that water, sanitation and hygiene play in exacerbating hunger and malnutrition, and what can be done to address it.
Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions play a critical role in food security initiatives including food production (crops, horticulture, poultry, and livestock) as well as to ensure good nutrition through safe drinking water and improving hygiene practices (waste management and hand washing).
Knowing the tremendous impact this can have on food security, U.S. leaders have formed the bipartisan International Water and Sanitation Caucus. Established in 2020 in the House of Representatives, it brings together Members concerned about international water and sanitation challenges that affect global health, economic productivity, ecosystems, and national security. The Caucus educates Members and staff and builds support for relevant Congressional activities that promote a more secure world where people have access to clean water and adequate sanitation facilities.
What does food security mean?
Food security means that families will have enough food, through growing their own food and obtaining aquatic foods such as fish and wild foods such as honey, as well as excess products to sell to in order to buy a variety of food. It means that no one in the family is undernourished, during pregnancies and infancy through to adulthood. Undernourishment can occur even on productive farms and in highly productive watersheds if one year, or several years running, crops can’t be planted and harvested at the right time and then adequately stored and safely brought to market. Because of drought or floods or other disasters and little buffering available through public health, finance, and insurance, families often struggle to feed themselves consistently.
How does World Vision address both immediate hunger challenges as well as build long term livelihoods?
Specifically, World Vision helps children and their families increase agricultural productivity through a variety of means appropriate to the needs of the local communities. These can include improved seeds, improved crop storage, access to markets so farming families can profitably sell their surplus, empowering families and communities to improve nutrition and dietary diversity and manage resources in a sustainable way to prevent soil erosion, maintain soil fertility, use water more efficiently, and protect the environment.
Why is water a critical component of agriculture and building resilience among families?
People need water both for drinking to prevent dehydration, and for sanitation to prevent spread of water-borne diseases such as cholera. Within agriculture, adequate water is needed at the right time for seeds to germinate, crops to grow and produce vegetables, fruits, grains, fibers such as cotton, and oilseeds. Similarly, water is essential for livestock to be able to produce milk, meat, and eggs. On the flip side, too much water flooding the fields can cause soil and crops to wash away. Prevention of erosion is important for sustainable fisheries, and plants such as trees that keep valuable soil from washing away need adequate water during their growing seasons. A shock such as a drought, flood, or cyclone in places where these events aren’t typically common can prevent far too many people from growing the food they need to feed themselves and their children or to produce enough excess produce to sell. Such a shock can be compounded by other shocks such as local conflicts, COVID and other diseases, and knock families further back into poverty.
For these reasons, World Vision’s programs have a significant emphasis on managing watersheds through farmers regenerating tree cover to bring up water and retain soil. Also, through choosing diverse crops for the water available and to manage risk if there is unseasonal drought or rain and flooding, and other locally appropriate means of managing climate risk such as dry storage and replanting coastal mangroves to minimize saltwater flooding.
How is all of this being used in World Vision programming?
South Sudan is currently facing its worst floods in nearly 60 years. Early seasonal rains have caused rivers to overflow their dykes and banks, inundating vast areas and settlements. World Vision has a project in South Sudan to construct three reservoirs which will serve a variety of purposes but most notably, these reservoirs will increase rainwater catchment, reduce runoff volume during floods, and protect local water sources by equipping farmers to establish fruit-tree nurseries and woodlots as buffer zones!
How are water, nutrition, and food security linked?
Timely seasonal access to water can directly affect crops and livestock productivity, but clean water is needed year-round to support public health, especially for the needs of growing children. Water-borne diseases such as cholera, and fecal coliform for example, cause diarrhea which is a leading cause of death in young children, accounting for roughly 8% of all deaths among children under 5. World Vision works with local communities to provide training and equipment for treatment and safe storage of water, hand washing and construction of latrines for sanitary disposal of feces. For example, a key pillar of our USAID funded program in Bangladesh called Nobo Jatra, is training and access to WASH at the household level. This means ensuring access to and proper management of water to drink and for sanitation. In this program families are provided with latrines and tanks for harvesting rainwater. Families are instructed on how to maintain and care for their latrines and water tanks as well taught sustainable hygiene practices like handwashing. When human waste and dirty water are disposed properly, natural water sources improve and don’t contaminate crops or livestock.
What can YOU do about water access? Your voice has the power to make a difference: ask your Representative to join the International Water and Sanitation Caucus and play a role in the effort to ensure access to clean water globally!
Ireen, age 9, collects clean water from the borehole that was drilled in her village in Malawi by World Vision. (©2020 World Vision/Atlas Productions)