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Right to water, right to food

Published on: 20/03/2012

At the seminar Agua y alimentacion, por derecho organised by Ongawa in Madrid on 20 March 2012,the multiple use water services (MUS) approach was debated.

Both water and sanitation (since UN resolutions in 2010), and food (with a longer history linked to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) are established as human rights. Rights that every world citizen should enjoy. But we find in many places that it is not always very easy to fulfill these rights separately. When we design water supply systems, people have a persistent habit of using that water not only for drinking and other basic domestic uses (like food preparation, washing and cleaning). It’s quite hard to stop people trying to be productive and using some of that water for productive uses like small-scale gardening, keeping a few livestock or micro-enterprises. In some parts of Ethiopia, people let their livestock drink before themselves.

Although it is always context specific and with lots of variation, I would argue that not a bad rule of thumb is that half the water supplied by rural water supply systems in developing countries will be used productively rather than for basic needs. This has been found in cases from Ethiopia where water consumption might only be 10 litres per capita per day (lpcd) in some drier areas, to more humid locations in Colombia where consumption could be over 150 lpcd.

Perhaps we shouldn’t want to stop activities that have important benefits for food security, nutrition and income generation? Perhaps it makes sense to link these rights better in implementation? One way to do that, debated at the seminar Agua y alimentacion, por derecho organised by Ongawa in Madrid on 20 March 2012, is through the multiple use water services (MUS) approach. But integration or coordination of interventions like this comes with its own complications. Some of those challenges and constraints, together with opportunities, were unpacked in the debate.

‘Some for all’ need not be interpreted as only focusing on basic domestic needs

While there is no harm, and it’s a necessity in fact, to make sure that everyone has their basic needs fulfilled, higher levels of service that facilitate productive uses need not mean that some people get less. Less compared to what? Less compared to the situation before? Or less compared to what other people are getting? Perhaps water supply is not always a zero sum game in terms of water or the funds available for investment? In fact ‘some for all’ might even depend on providing ‘more for some’. If people that have higher water demands don’t find these met in a planned way, they tend to try and access more water anyway, and that can have detrimental impacts on the less fortunate. And if well designed and planned, productive uses provide a potential source of income and cross-subsidy for the financing of water supply schemes. The sustainability of rural water supply systems is poor enough that this needs to be given some thought.

An intensive and efficient local source of food

Diets are changing as meat consumption grows and trade increasingly shifts food around the world to meet demand. While it is not going to help in the production of wheat or steaks, small-scale gardening and livestock keeping, does have a small and positive contribution to make. Because they are very small-scale, these productive activities tend to be very intensive and efficient. Gardens of a few square metres and small numbers of poultry, small stock or a cow or two at household level tend to be carefully looked after and productivity very high (per unit area or litre of water, although not necessarily in total for the household). The products produced tend to be nutritious: some green vegetables, a few tomatoes, eggs or milk. What MUS does do then in contributing to food security is well worth having as we all need to do more with less water. And, the food produced is more likely to be locally consumed or sold nearby to neighbours helping to keep down the food miles.


Posted by John Butterworth 20 March 2012


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