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Beyond food aid: linking water and food responses to avoid humanitarian emergencies

Written by Roger Calow

The humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa demands action. As Simon Levine points out on the ODI blog, however, it also raises some difficult questions. If early warning systems are in place, why the late response? If the humanitarian system is geared to responding to the wrong signals, what are the rights ones? Above all, how do governments, donors and NGOs help protect livelihoods before lives are threatened? Tough questions – and questions the Water Policy Programme at ODI has been addressing through the DFID-funded RiPPLE programme in Ethiopia.

First, the question of early warning. Or rather early warning and response. Early warning systems in Ethiopia have improved dramatically over the past 20 years, moving away from simple analysis of food needs, to analysis of household economies and prediction of gaps in production, income and consumption across the country’s 175 livelihood zones.  But warning and response are two different things, and involve different players. And, while information may have improved, incentives to act have lagged behind, with the demands of national governments and donors for proof of real problems stalling preventative action.    

Second, the question of signals, or indicators, and specifically those around water. Although early warning systems have improved, they still over-emphasise food access and production. This is one reason why responses have, historically, prioritised food aid over essential non-food needs – including medicines, veterinary drugs, seeds and, very importantly, water. Yet food insecurity is a symptom of many different problems, including lack of access to water for drinking, hygiene and for generating income. Research by the RiPPLE programme shows clearly how access to water allows people to maintain production and income, buy or access food, and protect key assets. The relationship can be direct –  water for livestock or small-scale irrigation, or indirect – freeing up time spent collecting water for more productive activities. What’s more, access to safe water for drinking and hygiene helps prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as measles and diarrhoea, often the primary causes of death during droughts and famines.

So, what would better signals look like – signals that reflect livelihood needs more accurately – and what kind of responses might follow? Clearly, we need better information on water availability, access and use, and measures of water stress that could trigger a range of different responses to complement food and production-based interventions.

Water tankering has to be a last resort. Far better to act early and repair existing systems, many of which have failed not because of drought or climate change, but because governments and donors prefer to build new systems rather than the capacity to maintain those that already exist.

The facts are stark: in sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 40% of hand pumps drawing water from groundwater aquifers – natural stores that act as buffers against rainfall variability – simply  don’t work. And in contrast to the wealth of information now available on food and livelihood systems, few countries know about the quantity, quality, distribution and reliability of their water resources, about how they are being used, or which water sources are functional.

This has to change. In Ethiopia, RiPPLE has worked with government partners on the design and implementation of a national water and sanitation inventory, now being rolled-out across the country. The inventory will provide, for the first time, accurate data on household-level water supply and sanitation. RiPPLE is also looking at how indicators of water security could be integrated in early warning and response, and in the new disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategy. By widening the scope of existing systems, we could get a clearer picture of livelihood security, and the interventions needed to support it, at little extra cost. ODI is also working with scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) to assess the resilience of groundwater systems and groundwater-dependent livelihoods to climate variability and longer-term change.

Finally, the question of protecting livelihoods before lives are threatened and building long term resilience. Although the current crisis suggests otherwise, real attempts are being made to move away from a short-term, disasters-focused view of climate variability and  temporary food insecurity, to a longer-term approach that puts livelihood security and vulnerability reduction at centre stage. This is certainly the case in Ethiopia. Clearly more needs to be done, and as Simon Levine rightly points out, ill-conceived policies that have affected pastoralists are as much to blame as climate shocks for the current crisis. As RiPPLE research on the provision of water to pastoralists points out, water sources developed in the wrong places can increase the vulnerability of some groups, and lead to environmental degradation.

In broad terms, however, extending access to water for a range of needs must underpin efforts to protect livelihoods and build food security. Evaluations of previous crises dating back to the early 1990s reiterate the same point: prioritise increased access to year-round water supplies and sanitation as part of a broader food security strategy. But ensuring people have access to water means paying much more attention to the targeting, design, maintenance and upkeep of water sources, not just building more systems in an uncontrolled way that fail after a few years, or during a drought. Increasingly, extending access to water will also mean prioritising water resource assessment, monitoring and management as demands grow and the climate changes, particularly for irrigation and energy. These are major challenges, yet to receive the priority they deserve from governments or donors.