Blog Post

Intersection of Water, Food, and Nutrition Security: Evidence from SSA

The UN estimates as many as 2.2 billion people worldwide do not have access to clean, safe drinking water. As rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and a growing global population put additional pressures on this critical natural resource, water insecurity will likely become an even more important determining factor in global and regional conflict. In a recent paper in Food Security, researchers examine the role of water insecurity in two other related challenges: food insecurity and dietary diversity.

Water insecurity, the paper’s authors argue, can impact food security and diets through numerous pathways. Lower agricultural production and subsequent lower yields and incomes due to a lack of water can reduce household’s ability to both grow and purchase nutrient-dense foods. Household income, and thus ability to purchase food, is also reduced when women and children must spend large amounts of time fetching water from remote locations rather than attending school or engaging in income-generating activities. Lack of water can also drive poor hygiene practices, which in turn can introduce germs that hamper people’s ability to absorb nutrients even when nutritious food is available. Finally, a lack of water may impact the diversity of foods being prepared in the home, reducing dietary diversity and overall nutrition outcomes.

The study used panel survey data from July 2020 through July 2021, taken from four countries in Africa south of the Sahara (SSA): Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. Data collected included information regarding:

  • how often households experienced water insecurity (defined as worry about having insufficient water for household needs, change of plans because of problems with water, lack of sufficient water to drink, or inability to wash hands) within the prior two weeks;
  • how often households experienced food insecurity (defined as worry about not having enough to eat, inability to eat healthy or nutritious foods, skipping meals, eating less than desired, and going hungry) in the prior two weeks; and
  • households’ level of dietary diversity (measured in consumption of any food from a list of 10 food groups, including animal-source foods, grains or pulses, and fruits and vegetables) in the prior 24 hours.

The study also collected demographic and education data, primary sources of drinking water for each household, and whether the household had experienced loss or changes to food or water access due to the pandemic or related mobility restrictions.

Attention was also paid to seasonal changes in precipitation.

At baseline, around one-third of all surveyed individuals lived in households deemed water-insecure. The study found that households with higher water insecurity scores were more likely to report more food insecurity experiences, both across all surveyed sites and in aggregate. Water-insecure households also experienced lower dietary diversity scores, with lower odds of consuming animal-source foods, grains or pulses, and vegetables. Overall, people from water-insecure households consumed 0.38 fewer food groups than their water-secure counterparts.

The study authors emphasize that reports of water insecurity at a single point in time did not necessarily predict a report of food insecurity at the next data collection point; however, one instance of water insecurity was negatively associated with dietary diversity at the next survey call. This means that water insecurity may be predictive of future reduced dietary diversity but not future food insecurity. The authors suggest this may be due to how survey timing intersects with crop planting and harvest cycles.

Further research is needed to determine which pathways are most impacted to changes in household water security, as well as to identify how other factors, such as soil health, rural infrastructure, household labor divisions, and types of crops produced, interact with or could be used to enhance water security. It seems clear, however, that water insecurity in SSA is strongly linked with food security and nutrition outcomes. As such, policies to address food security and dietary diversity challenges should take potential water insecurity into account.

Sara Gustafson is a freelance communications consultant.