Why Small-Scale Irrigation Makes for Good Nutrition Policy
The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Irrigation and Mechanization Systems (ILIMS), led by the University of Nebraska’s Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) (Nebraska-ILIMS), was fittingly launched at this year’s World Food Day with the theme “Water is Life, Water is Food. Leave No One Behind.”
The research program’s five areas of inquiry will develop socio-technical bundles that support uptake of mechanization and irrigation, strengthen institutions for natural resource governance and climate resilience, enable scaling of suitable technologies and support development of human resources. The fifth area of inquiry makes a leap from technology to nutrition and health, with the specific aim to “formulate strategies for nutrition-sensitive mechanization and irrigation that safeguard and enhance health and inclusivity.”
While most irrigation engineers and mechanization specialists tend to believe that their work supports food security and nutrition, not all investments in irrigation and mechanization automatically translate into better nutrition. Even more importantly, nutrition policy continues to largely ignore the essential role of nutrition-sensitive agricultural water management in nutrition outcomes, and thus fails to harness a key instrument in the nutrition toolbox. The UNICEF Conceptual Framework on Maternal and Child Nutrition notes the importance of age-appropriate food, care practices, adequate services and a healthy environment as key underlying determinants of maternal and child nutrition. All of these determinants depend on better water management:
- The production of food depletes around 80% of the world’s freshwater withdrawals and competition with other water uses is growing.
- Care practices and time suffer when mothers and other caregivers need to spend substantial time fetching water.
- A sanitary environment in the household, which can only be achieved if sufficient water of adequate quality can be obtained at or nearby the homestead.
Under a previous USAID-sponsored effort, the Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) found that small-scale irrigation can improve nutrition through: 1) supporting food production throughout the year, and particularly in the lean season and during climate-extreme events; 2) improving the diversity of foods produced, particularly fruits and vegetables, but also animal-source foods through irrigated fodder; 3) increasing household incomes that allow families to purchase a higher-quality diet, to pay for school fees and medical bills; and 4) providing water access at the household level for multiple uses, including for domestic and hygiene purposes. All of these pathways can be strengthened if women participate in decision-making processes on irrigation.
But, not all irrigation is equally beneficial for nutrition. Irrigation that uses buckets and watering cans is highly labor intensive and while it can provide more vegetables on the table, the time cost involved with manual irrigation generally does not increase production and income sufficiently for households to decisively affect nutrition outcomes. It can also compete with time for childcare and other important activities that impact health. Mechanized irrigation reduces time cost, but might be more challenging to access and use by female irrigators. Similarly, large-scale irrigation focused on cash crops, such as sugarcane or rice, might increase household income, but if women are not engaged in decision-making on spending the income generated, nutrition might well not improve. Finally, while irrigation can improve household water access, outcomes are generally better if groundwater is the water source. Importantly, irrigation access and related water access at the household level does not necessarily improve hygiene practices. Some irrigation investments and management practices can increase vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, and can even worsen water quality through inappropriate application of fertilizers and pesticides.
This suggests the need for a substantial engagement of policymakers interested in improving nutrition outcomes for their populations in agricultural water management. Policymakers in the nutrition and health sectors not only need to be aware of the potential of agricultural water management for nutrition policy and outcomes, but they need to actively engage with their water and irrigation policy counterparts, asking pertinent questions, such as:
- Are irrigation investments designed for and managed toward improving nutrition outcomes? That is, are irrigation practices and irrigated crops supporting the production of nutrient-dense foods, are they time-efficient and do they not harm domestic water access, particularly in geographies with high undernutrition or malnutrition?
- Are irrigation practices supporting domestic water uses or, instead, depleting and polluting household water supplies?
- How are female farmers engaged in the design of new and management of existing irrigation?
- What indicators are we using to monitor progress on nutrition through better water management?
Only if these four initial questions can be answered by every policymaker engaged in nutrition policy anywhere, can we start to harness the nutrition potential of agricultural water management. Given the linkages between climate change, extreme weather events and water-related risks in agriculture, these questions are increasingly urgent to address.
The newly launched ILIMS plans for engagement with decision-makers around relevant nutrition and health policy and action. Efforts are needed in capacity development, cross-sector engagement and south-south, south-north and north-south exchanges on these important, interlinked topics. We aim to widen collaboration to work toward the Global Food Security Strategy objective for a well-nourished population, especially among women and children.