March 26, 2019 | By

Uncharted Waters: Water Resources Are Increasingly Strained – US Leadership Must Respond

This final post concludes our blog series, “Uncharted Waters,”  which for the past eight weeks has explored the challenges of feeding and nourishing a rapidly growing global population in the face of water scarcity. We are now celebrating the release of our new report, From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future. Join the discussion using #GlobalAg, and explore the report interactive now.

By Laura Glenn O'Carroll

At the 2019 Global Food Security Symposium, Gilbert Houngbo, president of the UN International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and former president of Togo, said that, “Water can be the solution for peace making but also a source of conflict.” As climates shift and global populations increase, paired with rising urbanism and more complex diet demands, agriculture will be increasingly vulnerable to water shortages. In 2017, the US Department of Defense stated in the Global Water Strategy that, “The Department views water security as an issue of national security.” Without action, this resource competition is potentially poised to trigger conflict, food price instability, and tension in regions least equipped for adaption.

Regions that are experiencing high levels of food insecurity have also in many cases seen numerous water-related conflict incidents in recent years. (Source - From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future)


For decades, the United States has been at the forefront of global food security policy as well as water, sanitation, and hygiene development. Landmark legislation such as the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, and the Global Food Security Act have focused US efforts and expertise on the areas of greatest impact. But as water and nutrition security becomes further challenged, the United States must better coordinate agriculture, nutrition, and water development policy in order to adequately respond to increasing pressures.

These three pieces of legislation—the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act (WfP), the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act (WtW), and the Global Food Security Act—each build the policy framework for US efforts to develop food, water, and nutrition security across the globe. While there are efforts to integrate water, sanitation, and agriculture issues, theses bills illustrate a shifting degree of focus and highlight opportunities for better coordination.

Water for the Poor and Water for the World

The Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act (WfP) first passed in 2005 with bipartisan support and codified specific priorities for water development assistance with the understanding that, “Water scarcity can contribute to insecurity and conflict on subnational, national, and international levels, thus endangering the national security of the United States.” Six years later, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2011 (WfW) expanded on the capacity created by previous legislation and started to integrate food security priorities into water and sanitation development. While water delivery and sanitation remained a central focus, WfW called for, “the Special Coordinator to ensure that the safe water and sanitation strategy is integrated into any review or development of a federal strategy for global development, global health, or global food security.”

However, this increasing coordination between food security and water security efforts was minimized in the 2014 reauthorization, which included no language on food security. The 2014 bill however developed criteria for high-priority countries for assistance, several of which overlap with Feed the Future initiative target countries.

Both the Global Food Security Act and the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act designate target countries for programmatic focus. (Source - From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future)


Global Food Security Efforts

The Feed the Future strategy is centered on poverty alleviation through smallholder agricultural development, with the understanding that much of the world’s hunger is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, where most of the poor are themselves farmers. By developing sustainable economic growth in targeted countries, Feed the Future aims to build resilience and improve nutritional outcomes in vulnerable populations.

In 2016, the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) authorized a comprehensive strategy approach and funding through 2018 for the initiative. In November 2018, the GFSA was reauthorized through 2023 without opposition and signed by President Trump. A truly bipartisan program, Feed the Future and the GFSA now stand as cornerstones of American foreign development policy.

While the GFSA and WfW both represent tremendous policy achievements and a strong philosophy of development, agriculture and water cannot be considered independently of one another anymore. Agriculture is the single largest sector user of water—up to 71 percent—and as incomes rise across the globe, more people are seeking higher-quality diets that include water-expensive crops such as fruits and vegetables. For the first time ever, half of the world is either middle class or richer. This is a good thing—but without planning and coordinated action, the nearly 2.5 billion people who still do not have access to improved sanitation and the 815 million who suffer from chronic undernourishment will be left behind. 

This is why the Chicago Council on Global Affairs is calling for a multidimensional approach to agriculture, water, sanitation, and nutrition development that unifies and coordinates US responses in order to reach the nation’s foreign policy and humanitarian goals. Our new report, From Scarcity to Security: Managing Water for a Nutritious Food Future, lays out four recommendations:

(1) Strengthen the environment for cooperation and communication between water development and food and nutrition security;

(2) Ease the challenges that hinder greater private-sector investment to expand sustainable water development for food and nutrition security;

(3) Leverage US expertise and influence to improve water resource governance and sustainability; and

(4) Strengthen support for agricultural R&D and interdisciplinary research at the nexus of water, food, and nutrition.

The proposal to reorganize USAID office’s Bureau of Food Security into the Bureau for Resiliency and Food Security offers an excellent opportunity to create interdisciplinary engagement. The new bureau organization specifically connects water security to hunger and malnutrition by consolidating the Burau for Food Security; the Office of Water within the Bureau for Economic Growth, Education, and Environment; and the E3 Climate Adaptation tea. Only by considering the interactions between water, sanitation, and agriculture can the United States maximize institutional and programmatic strengths and generate whole-of-government solutions.


Read our previous posts in the Uncharted Waters series:

Achieving Food and Nutrtion Security in the Face of Water Scarcity

Farmer-Led Irrigation for Agricultural Intensification

Growing Cities, Changing Diets

Are the Sustainable Development Goals for Water and Food Working Against One Another? 

The Livestock Ladder's Water Footprint

The Gendered Burden of Water

From Chicago to Uganda, Clean Water is Key to Good Nutrition



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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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.