March 18, 2019 | By Stineke Oenema, Ivan Kent

Guest Commentary - Putting Nutrition at the Center of Collective Action

Editor's Note: As part of our new blog series, Uncharted Waters, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is inviting a diverse group of experts to explore topics related to water, nutrition, and agriculture in advance of  the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium.  Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and tune in to the symposium live stream on March 20 and 21.

By Stineke Oenema and Ivan Kent

Malnutrition currently affects 1 in 3 people with 193 countries experiencing multiple forms of the condition. Almost 821 million people are chronically undernourished, 151 million children under the age of five years are stunted and 50 million are wasted. Meanwhile, two billion people are overweight or obese, resulting in a further set of wide-ranging negative impacts on wellbeing and the economy.
In recent years, we have witnessed a greater understanding of the central role that nutrition plays in human development. The many manifestations of malnutrition result not just from a lack of sufficient, nutritious and safe food, but also from a host of interacting processes that link healthcare, education, sanitation and hygiene, access to resources, women’s empowerment and more. Tackling malnutrition in all its forms therefore requires co-ordinated action across a range of different sectors.
Last June, UNSCN convened an Expert Group Meeting Linking Nutrition with the SDGs to better understand the role of nutrition both as a connecting force between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and as a catalyst to their achievement. An important element discussed at the meeting, was the nexus between water, sanitation and nutrition.
Children living in environments with poor water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) are more likely to be infected by disease-causing pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and other microorganisms. These environments increase the number of undernourished and stunted children, with adverse effects on their intestinal development. According to the World Health Organization, roughly 50 percent of all malnutrition is associated with repeated diarrhoea or intestinal worm infections as a direct result of inadequate WASH. When children are undernourished, they are less resistant to infection, making them at a higher risk of mortality. Decreasing open defecation and increasing hand washing is a sound investment, simultaneously improving sanitation, and reducing the spread of disease often associated with malnutrition.
Smart water use can also contribute to more sustainable, equitable, and nutritious food systems. Agriculture is the largest user of freshwater resources, accounting for 70 percent of water use. Greater efforts are needed to promote production methods that reduce water pollution from nutrient runoff, agricultural chemicals and livestock manure. One example is the Farmhand project in Tamil Nadu, India, where the development of a precision irrigation system in a small-scale farm, has had profound impacts: water use has reduced by 80 percent, while crop yield has increased. As mentioned in the Global Panel brief on Climate Smart Food Systems, growing a wider diversity of crops and livestock, and adopting more drought resistant varieties, can also support climate-resilient agriculture while also facilitating dietary diversity.
This growing interest in the links between food (SDG2), water (SDG6) and energy (SDG7) systems is driven by the recognition that a focus on gains in one specific area can inadvertently lead to losses in others, as well concerns about climate change (SDG13) and the negative impact of the industrial food and agricultural system on human and planetary health. These interlinkages need to be more thoroughly understood in order to make more coherent policy choices. Examples can be found in a recent publication from IWMI entitled ‘Meeting the nutrition and water targets of the Sustainable Development Goals: achieving progress through linked interventions.’ It is important that policy-makers seek out these linkages and synergies between nutrition and water.
In 2016, the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly as a commitment of Member States following the recommendations and commitments of the ICN2 Framework for Action and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In parallel, the International Decade for Action on Water for Sustainable Development (2018-2028) promotes the efficient use of water and to uphold the human right of the access to water and sanitation. UNSCN and the Global Panel have both made commitments to the Nutrition Decade to support countries meeting their SDG targets by placing nutrition at the heart of cross-sectorial action. We invite others to do the same, and to help foster linkages between the UN Decades on-going.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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