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The Water-Energy-Food-Health Nexus

Charles Arthur's picture
UN Industrial Development Organization

Editor of UNIDO's magazine, Making It: Industry for Development. Making It is a quarterly magazine to stimulate debate about global industrial development issues. It discusses the role of...

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  • Mar 2, 2016

Ursula Schaefer-Preuss wants a water-secure world where the productive power of water is harnessed and its destructive force is minimized


nexus_mainThe Global Water Partnership is an international network open to organizations both within and outside the water community, including government institutions, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations, civil society groups and the private sector. Our vision is for a water secure world. A water secure world harnesses the productive power of water and minimizes its destructive force. It is a world where every person has enough safe, affordable, clean water to lead a healthy and productive life.

There is increasing global recognition and acceptance that the water-energy-food-health nexus is at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, where sustainable growth has become increasingly imperative to address climate change and the needs of billions of people without access to basic services. Let me elaborate further on these linkages, including with reference to agriculture and nutrition, closely linked to this theme.

The importance of water for agriculture and energy for food and nutrition as well as for health – in terms of both benefits and risks – is recognized now as never before. Yet links between and among the water, agriculture, energy, food/nutrition, and health communities are weak, with serious implications for the effectiveness of efforts to improve health and nutrition. These need to be tackled through an integrated approach.

Agricultural intensification, for example, can lead to water pollution and/or disruptions to ecosystems and to the further spread of agriculture-associated diseases and the development of new ones. Agriculture could do a better job of providing access to nutritious food products and high-quality diets to supply essential micro-nutrients for poor and marginal groups, particularly young children and women. Agriculture policies could contribute to re-directing the nutrition transition, i.e., the changes in diets toward increased consumption of cheap, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods which are deepening the emerging epidemic of obesity and chronic diseases in countries undergoing economic growth and rapid urbanization.

Broader access to safe drinking water and sanitation, as well as more nutritious and diversified diets, can accelerate progress in reducing water-borne diseases, malnutrition and diet-related chronic diseases and infections. Improved nutrition and by that health, in turn, can reduce poverty for the 1.4 billion people living on less than US$1.25 a day. A greater focus on the role of women in agriculture – as potential mediators of household and individual food, and nutrition security and health – as well as on the allocation of food within households – could accelerate improvements in the nutrition and health of vulnerable household members, including women, infants and young children.

Making a difference to the lives of the rural poor (and this is just as valid, in principle, for the lives of urban poor) requires:
– Taking a systematic view of how water, agriculture, energy, health, and nutrition interact globally, nationally, and locally;
– Addressing gaps in our knowledge of these relationships (for example, by developing metrics that better capture the multiple burdens of water/agriculture-associated disease and that show the benefits of safe water/food-based nutritional solutions;
– Developing a strong body of evidence based on rigorous research to help decision-makers choose options and evaluate trade-offs related to health and nutrition interventions; and
– Fostering effective approaches in improving nutrition and health that cross sector boundaries.

It is evident that taking into account negative effects of climate change and not well-coordinated sector interventions can even be more harmful for the affected population, mainly the vulnerable.

In my position as Chair of the Global Water Partnership and being closely linked to the challenges of a water secure world, I would like to focus on this year which marks the end of the ‘International Decade for Action, “Water for Life”, 2005-2015’. It offers a wonderful opportunity to analyze the impact that the Water Decade has had on improving water management and in what way ensuing thinking has continued to change our water perception and to address the main issues of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.

No doubt the Water Decade proved to be helpful in a number of respects, namely with regard to accelerating the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the water area. The Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation 2014 reports that, today, 116 countries have met the MDG target of access to improved sources of drinking water and 77 countries have met the target of improved sanitation.

There is also growing recognition that if we wish to manage water resources effectively, then we must approach this together in an integrated manner. And we have reached a lot already. From the relevant 2012 United Nations survey, it can be seen that of 134 countries, 82% have embarked on reforms to improve the enabling environment and integrate approaches to water resources management.

This decade has witnessed the emergence of new and modified paradigms. The Green Economy/Growth and the Water–Energy–Food Nexus have become subjects of international debate, reinforcing the need for an integrated approach. But the conceptual attractiveness of paradigms is not enough. They must be applicable in a fast changing world.

Despite tangible progress, many issues addressed in this decade remain unsolved. Evidently, major shifts in both policies and conceptual approaches to water and all relevant sectors closely interlinked with water are called for in order to reach a more desirable future and limit calamities that can otherwise be foreseen.

The message that emerged from the international debates on setting the SDGs in 2015 is one of urgency for the world to act to prevent water crises. The size of today’s water security challenge should not be underestimated.

We in the Global Water Partnership strongly believe that the SDGs should set new strategies in motion governing the way we live and interact with our environment to ensure there will be enough water to support development and future generations. Global sustainability is, fundamentally, about our ability to influence the future of our freshwater resources and the future of humanity. We recognize this is a complex undertaking. Good management of both natural and human induced water problems requires a broad set of stakeholders to engage in long-term collaboration. This is also about the importance of integrated approaches for energy, water, food, and health. This is about stewardship of water resources for the greatest good of societies and the environment.

Stewardship is a public responsibility, requiring dynamic, adaptable, participatory and balanced planning and, at the end of the day, it is all about coordinating and sharing.

Ursula Schaefer-Preuss has been engaged in the field of development policy for more than 35 years. She is Chair of the Global Water Partnership, which was founded in 1996 by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) to foster integrated water resource management.

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