Linking water and food: the hidden contribution of domestic water supplies

Linking water and food: the hidden contribution of domestic water supplies

Water and food security are both vital concerns in Ethiopia, and intrinsically linked. A history of food insecurity and terrible famines is underpinned by low levels of access to water, but that is slowly being addressed.

Water and food security are both vital concerns in Ethiopia, and intrinsically linked. A history of food insecurity and terrible famines is underpinned by low levels of access to water, but that is slowly being addressed.

Some of the links between water and food security are obvious. Some 70% of the world’s water abstractions are for irrigation of crops, and the rain-fed bread-baskets of the world like the North American Great Plains underpin the global food supply. But near the household there are links between the provision of basic water and sanitation services and food that are hidden. Most poor families – in rural and urban areas - do not have access to irrigated lands or fields watered by adequate rainfall. But developing country governments are working hard to extend access to domestic or ‘basic needs’ water and sanitation to everyone. Universal coverage is still a long way off in many countries, and globally 780 million still do not have access to an improved water source according to the latest JMP report. But improved or not, ‘domestic’ water supplies provide a supply of water fairly close to that home that is not only drunk.

We all only need a few litres of water for drinking, but so-called domestic water supplies do something that is rarely recognized. At the household level a little water sometimes goes a long way, and a growing number of case studies show that rather a lot of domestic water supplies are also used for food production and other cost-saving or income generating activities. Small gardens are frequently irrigated from domestic water supplies or the small quantities of wastewater that each household generates, and a few livestock may drink much more than their owners. Use of domestic water systems for productive activities isn’t always officially permitted, sometimes it is criminalised, and it is very rarely planned for, but families frequently do it anyway. The logic of production and income generation comes to the fore for poor families in using water, in contrast to the health-driven pre-occupations of most professionals working in the water sector and their specialised approaches.

We don’t know how many calories are produced depending on such domestic water supplies and other small-scale water sources near the home. And probably, rather than calories, it is the high nutritional value of many productive uses of domestic water that is even more important. Examples include the vitamins produced by a single papaya tree that might be irrigated by wastewater, the milk and eggs produced by a few small livestock, or the green vegetables grown on a small backyard plot. And as well as being consumed, even very small levels of production, if regular, can have an important impact through costs saved on food purchases or small amounts of cash generated by sales.

Still it is not always obvious or straightforward what to do to maximize the benefits that people can derive from their water supply systems without compromising on safe water quality and the health benefits that we want to see. The institutional barriers within the water sector are a powerful disincentive to integrating provision of water for domestic and productive uses. Designing and managing communal schemes for multiple uses can be complex and challenging with competition and conflicts hard to reconcile or avoid. That said, there are a growing number of examples to add to many traditionally integrated approaches.

Multiple Use water Services (MUS) is an old concept that is now rediscovered (see for example) as a promising participatory approach to water development and service provision. MUS takes the multiple needs and priorities of water users, and recognition of the practice of widespread use of multiple conjunctive sources, as the starting point for planning investments in new infrastructure or rehabilitation, or better management.

A report produced recently by IRC and partners for the Rockefeller Foundation, reviews the potential for multiple use water services in Ethiopia and identifies some possible entry points for interventions. The study reports reasonably wide recognition of the potential merits of MUS in Ethiopia as a result of innovation by NGOs and advocacy by research institutes, including participation in the global MUS Group international conference that was held in Addis Ababa in 2008. It is a term that the sector is using more often.

Several NGOs have been implementing and upgrading community managed systems that cater for domestic and productive water uses like irrigation, watering livestock and other micro-enterprises, and integrating these different uses to try and maximize the broad livelihood benefits that are linked to various health, food security and economic development outcomes. The provision of livestock troughs with community domestic water facilities is also fairly standard. In addition, households have been implementing systems that serve their multiple needs for water through the approach known as self-supply. Family wells have been developed by tens of thousands of households, and more often than not are used for multiple purposes with increasing productivity being a key driving force for making this private investment.

The acronym ‘MUS’ is itself increasingly a part of the sector discourse in Ethiopia and interest in MUS is on the rise. However, MUS interventions and modalities have generally not been scaled up widely in the country. This seems largely due to the same barriers that MUS faces elsewhere: the conventional institutional structuring of water policies, water services implementation programs, and professional disciplines into fragmented, parallel operating ‘vertical’ sectors of single water uses such as rural water supply and agriculture.

In rural water supply, communal schemes are found to hold more limited potential for MUS since the pressures on these schemes for domestic water supply are high and the designers are generally not far-sighted enough or able to design for multiple uses beyond livestock troughs. However, two new formalized and more decentralised financing and service delivery mechanisms in the rural water supply sector create exciting new opportunities for scaling up MUS and related technologies: the Community Managed Project (CMP) approach and self supply.

These mechanisms offer considerable potential for scaling up MUS because they both decentralise aspects of decision-making to people in communities or households. MUS could play an important role in helping the domestic water sector achieve its target of universal access by 2015 by generating the income needed to drive private investment in self-supply, and potentially improving the sustainability of communal water supply schemes. From an agricultural perspective, there are ambitious plans to develop 1.5 million hectares under smallholder cultivation over the next 5 years, which represents a seven-fold increase.

The scoping study identifies some entry points for implementation of MUS that are more likely to go to scale, and other supporting activities that could encourage wider uptake.

One ‘best-bet’ opportunity identified is to support the government in its development of a Self-Supply Acceleration Programme (SSAP). Family wells are used for multiple uses (by design) and there are existing experiences at scale to learn from, but weaknesses in the enabling environment currently hamper acceleration and do little to encourage safe water quality and sustainability. However, the self-supply approach has recently gained recognition in the national domestic water sector policy. The agricultural sector also has ambitious plans to extend self-supply and there is potentially much to gain in terms of access to safe water and increased productivity through linking these efforts. SSAP involves providing support in four main areas: technology options and advice, strengthening the private sector, supporting financial systems and enabling government policies.

Another opportunity identified is implementing MUS through the Community Managed Projects (CMP) approach. CMP is a nationally recognized approach for rural WASH, in fact now the priority approach for communal supplies, and being rolled out nationwide. In theory, the decentralization of decision-making to communities in CMP ought to facilitate MUS. However, this has until now not been actively promoted or facilitated to date by agencies involved in CMP. Working with the micro-finance institutions involved, this best-bet could pilot mixes of 100% grant (the current modality) for basic WASH infrastructure, mixed grant/loan for some add-ons and additional ‘productive infrastructure’ at community level, and 100% loans for household level investments. The new UNICEF-implemented integrated project that mixes WASH, MUS and community-based nutrition (a project known as NUWI2), and which also uses the CMP approach, aims to now test MUS approaches at scale. It is, we think, the most substantial effort to implement MUS at scale through a ‘domestic-plus’ modality anywhere.

Perhaps most important given the many new initiatives, there is an opportunity and need for a learning network on MUS focusing on policy and practice in Ethiopia to learn from and leverage the activities of various partners. This would be timely given that there are several new MUS initiatives in the country and rising interest. Coordination and learning could improve within the Ethiopian water sector (especially between sectors like water, health, education and agriculture) and between levels (national, regional, woreda or district). A well run and well documented capacity building and learning platform or network on MUS could create synergies and maximize impacts. Activities might include workshops, training courses, a dedicated website, additional case study documentation to support ongoing initiatives and seed funding new initiatives.

That’s one idea that we will work on to help realise some of the potential links between food security and water, on a day when the UN system is highlighting the issue on World Water Day.

Posted by John Butterworth 19 March 2012