Since 1979, the global community has celebrated World Food Day every year on 16 October. The date commemorates the foundation of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1945, and aims to raise solidarity and public awareness of problems related to food and hunger. For example, this year’s World Food Day theme revolves around the critical importance of water, with the central message: “Water is life, water is food. Leave no one behind.”

While not often explicitly discussed in development forums or the media, the connections between water, food, and nutrition may seem fairly obvious. Water is needed to grow the crops that nourish our bodies, enabling us to live healthier lives. However, water is also a finite resource that is under immense strain from not only the agriculture industry, but also climate change. 

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Image: Juliet Ngozi Ebuo, a rice farmer in Ayamelum, Anambra State, Nigeria, watering her paddy. Credit: IFAD / Andrew Esiebo / Panos  

Despite the fact that 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5% of that is fresh – that is, suitable for drinking, farming, and most industrial purposes. Of that limited amount, agriculture is responsible for 72% of all global freshwater withdrawals, making it the sector that uses the most. It is also a major water polluter, as agrochemicals, drug residues, and organic matter run off of farms and industrial agriculture sites and into water supplies.  

Today, 2.4 billion people – over a quarter of the world’s population – live in water-stressed countries, meaning that there is insufficient safe water in an area to meet local needs. Many of those most at risk are smallholder farmers who are already struggling, including women, indigenous peoples, migrants, and refugees. 

The climate crisis threatens to make matters even worse. The UN predicts that every 1°C increase in the global average temperature will lead to a 20% drop in renewable water resources. This risk not only comes from the immediate impacts of climate disasters themselves, such as droughts and floods that impact crops and growing conditions, but also the subsequent damage to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, leading to dangerous leaks and contamination. Such damage can then go on to have hugely negative impacts on nutrition – in fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 50% of undernutrition is associated with infections caused by poor WASH. 

This video (“How can a tap, a toilet and a bar of soap help prevent undernutrition?”) explains:

The interconnections between nutrition and WASH provide significant opportunities for programmes and policies that tackle both issues holistically, and therefore creating impactful, long-term change. Some promising examples of this are already in action. For example, in Ethiopia, the WASH subgroup of the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Civil Society Alliance acts as a forum for sharing their experiences of integrating the two issues, and strategies for how to overcome barriers. In Madagascar, WASH has been incorporated into the Government’s National Nutrition Plan, which includes specific interventions alongside operational and monitoring and evaluation plans. For example, the country’s National Office for Nutrition (ONN) has used the concept of a “nutrition village” in the Masindray area, bringing together stakeholders to create a holistic nutrition programme that includes improving WASH in schools and healthcare facilities alongside introducing school meals and increasing support for community health workers. 

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Image: Children playing outside of a WASH facility in Madagascar. Credit: WaterAid / Ernest Randriarimalala

At RESULTS UK, World Food Day is also an opportunity to think more critically about how the UK can do more in the fight to eradicate global malnutrition. This year’s theme reminds us that in order to make sure everyone has access to good nutrition, it is vital to consider the ways in which nutrition impacts and is impacted by other sectors. That is why we are advocating for the UK to use the upcoming Global Food Security Summit to call for a holistic approach to tackling malnutrition that includes things like WASH, addressing climate change, and sustainably transforming food systems. As the FAO says, water is life, and water is food. Acting on this can help us make sure no one is left behind.