WATER FOR LIFE CONFERENCE
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Published on 8 July 2010

WATER FOR LIFE CONFERENCE

Heather Hill, Deputy Country Director, speaking on food security and its role in Integrated Water Resource Management.
Photo: Naim Jabborov/WFP
 

 

One of the most important events in 2010 on the Tajikistan calendar was the High Level International Water Conference held in the capital Dushanbe from 8 to 9 June 2010. The conference was staged at the mid-point of the UN International Decade for Action "Water for Life" (2005-2015) to review progress made on water resource management. WFP was invited to participate in one of six roundtables at the conference, which was opened by President Emomali Rahmon and featured an address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Here is the transcript of the WFP speech, given by Deputy Country Director Heather Hill.

Round Table VI: Integrated Water Resource Management: Energy, Agriculture and Food Security


Good morning. Thank you for this opportunity to speak on food security and its role in Integrated Water Resource Management.


Let me begin by talking about food security in general terms. The global context of food security has significantly changed because of a series of tumultuous events over the last two years.


The first event was the food price surge that began in February 2008. Although the prices of basic commodities had been increasing since late 2006, notice was not widely taken until the television news began showing food riots and unrest in Haiti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Cameroon and other countries around the world. In Tajikistan,fears were raised that almost one-third of the 7.4 million people here would not have enough to eat over the next winter.


The Chief Executives Board of the United Nations established a High Level Task Force in April 2008 as a temporary measure to enhance the efforts of the UN system and International Financial Institutions in response to the food security crisis.


Two months later, the High-Level Conference on World Food Security at FAO Headquarters in Rome took place. The topic was climate change and bioenergy but the meeting was quickly dominated by the unprecedented  food and fuel prices. The outcome was a declaration, adopted by acclamation, calling on the international community to increase assistance for developing countries. A number of states – France, the U.S., the U.K. and Spain – announced funds that amounted to billions of dollars to fight hunger and promote agricultural development.


The response of the donor community in 2008 was impeccable, as nations gave in record numbers to the humanitarian actors attempting to grapple with the needs. This generous response over the next year translated into a concerted effort by the entire international community to solve this fundamental problem.


Next we saw the Food Security Initiative produced by the G8 summit at L’Aquila, Italy, in July 2009 which asserted, in part, that access to adequate and affordable nutritious food is a critical aspect of food security. The G8 pledged $22 billion to back the goals in the Initiative. That sum included $3.5 billion announced by U.S. President Barack Obama for a food security programme in Africa. Both initiatives promised to end tied food aid and instead promote agricultural development.


Clearly, a powerful political will was at work. The international community had been galvanized to find an answer for an ancient problem – the lack of access to food and the spectre of famine -- that seemed unthinkable in the early 20th century.


This political will coincides with a new level of sophistication in food security technology. The tools have become smarter and more powerful because of satellite technology and the Internet. Vulnerability Assessment Mapping, or VAM, for example, is now done through “remote sensing,” or satellite imagery. There are Internet sites like the Famine Early Warning Systems Network of USAID and the Global Information and Early Warning System run by FAO that collect data on where, when and why people are without food, all over the world. It may be because of climatic, economic or health problems, but the causes are documented on these and other websites.


The food security actors – UN and government agencies, NGOs, research institutes -- meet regularly and share their information. Even if they cannot be present in a country to undertake an assessment, through information-sharing they can draw an accurate picture of the needs. National actors are drawn into the process through the Integrated Phase Classification project, which is administered by FAO and WFP. Food security has a far more integrated approach than in the past.
Why is this important?


Locating the most food-insecure populations, and dissecting the sources of their vulnerability, is the first step toward developing the integrated solutions that will help them achieve improved livelihoods. These solutions will incorporate agricultural policies, health and education, economic development and, perhaps most important of all, water management.


Perhaps the best example of this approach is the Central Asian Regional Risk Assessment, a framework which was unveiled in January 2009 for monitoring the inter-linked threats to water, energy and food security. This initiative was set up following the 2007-8 winter energy crisis, the severity of which caught many by surprise. As the UN Resident Coordinator Michael Jones has said: “We thought we knew exactly what we were doing. We were monitoring the weather. But we quickly learned that it is much more than that. We realized that we couldn’t look at only the obvious indicators but we had to check other factors as well.”


What are these other indicators? We can monitor risk in fluctuations in the prices of food in the markets. Every week, WFP collects prices of basic foodstuffs in the market and shares the data and analysis widely. Another gauge of vulnerability is the level of remittances from Russian and Kazakhstan. We can also look for risk trends in the consequences for rural people of changes to land ownership laws.


Nonetheless, we cannot overestimate the importance of the water regime for Tajikistan. How many inches of rainfall, how much snow coverage on the mountains, how quickly are the glaciers receding. These factors will have an impact not just on human vulnerability but on agriculture, industry, employment, exports, the gross domestic product – everything that constitutes society and the economy because Tajikistan is so heavily water-dependent.


Tajikistan’s two most profitable industries and largest employers are agriculture and aluminium. The first, agriculture, is the biggest user of water of any economic sector. The second, aluminium, requires huge amounts of energy. The Tursunzoda Aluminium Smelter consumes nearly 40 percent of the total power output in the country and accounts for more than 30 percent of the country’s total exports. At the same time, it employs 12,000 workers and indirectly supports a community of 100,000.


So just imagine what would happen to this enterprise if there were a sudden interruption in power supply. First, the drop in production would cripple the Tajik economy, with the resultant trickle-down effect reaching the furthest rural village in the country. The job losses at the smelter would see a sharp increase in labour migration. While remittances put a little money in the bank for poor families, the absence of the father or brother slowly unravels the fabric of household and community. And that settlement of 100,000 people around the vast smelter plant would plunge into poverty as people are stripped of their accustomed livelihoods almost overnight.


Tajikistan’s dependency on water makes it especially susceptible to climate change. The threat is two-fold. One is the fast onset of climate change, seen in both the rise in natural disasters, of which about 90% are water-related, and the extreme weather combinations of too little or too much precipitation. Floods, mudslides and droughts compromise food security in the immediate term, and the bigger the natural disaster, the greater and more long-term the damage, as we saw in the epic drought in Ethiopia in 1984. The other threat is the slow onset of climate change – the drop-by-drop, grain-by-grain loss of topsoil, trees, and water that imperceptibly makes it harder for a poor farmer to produce crops or a woman to find firewood.


 If we go back to Tursonzoda, and look at it through the prism of climate change, we might see, somewhere in the future, the unthinkable: families and communities bereft of income and support, lacking even basic food,  starting to move in search of it. Moving from the countryside to overstretched cities, moving from one part of the countryside to another. That kind of instability and social unrest is what prompted policy-makers and political leaders to forge the food security covenants of two years ago.


Our goal must be to stop people from moving by building assets to keep them where they are, to implant, as it were, the organs of food security. At WFP, we do that by giving people food to cultivate trees, build irrigation canals, restore drinking water supplies, stop riverbanks from bursting and restore degraded pasture land. One of our greatest success stories is in Vietnam, where in the 1990s WFP help build or upgrade 454 kilometres of sea dykes to protect rice paddies from seawater, storms and typhoons. By the time we closed our office there in 2000, Vietnam had gone from relying on food assistance to being the second-largest rice exporter in the world.


The challenge for us is to learn how to forge strategy and stability in food security out of the constantly shifting events of water and energy. There are countless pieces in this vast and complex puzzle but we are finding the links, and the patterns that make sense. Our small achievements come out of the concerted efforts and collaborative strategies that bloom in the wreckage left by crisis and natural disaster. The twin threats of climate change are an opportunity to plan and prevent in entirely new ways. We have never been better equipped to take up this challenge.

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Heather Hill

Deputy Country Director of Tajikistan

Heather Hill joined WFP as a Public Information Officer in 1998. A former journalist, she has been a WFP spokesperson in major emergencies including  the crises in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) and the Indian Ocean tsunami (2004). She was based in Rome and Bangkok before transferring to Central Asia in July 2009.