The U.S. Global Food Security and Global Water Strategies: Increasing Coherence and Navigating Challenges

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Adequate supplies of clean water and nutritious food are vital to human well-being. They are also increasingly important to U.S. foreign policy. In 2016, the first U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy framed alleviating global hunger and malnutrition as a key humanitarian and development issue and a national security necessity. The following year, the first U.S. Government Global Water Strategy proclaimed that safe water and sanitation are essential to human health, peace, and prosperity as well as an entry point to strengthening governance and societal resilience. In a world of increasingly interconnected social and ecological systems, water stresses and food insecurity risks are inextricably intertwined, posing significant challenges for global development and stability. As the United States aims to address these pressing concerns, it should seize the potential synergies and navigate the inherent challenges in better integrating its strategies for water and food security.

The world’s freshwater resources and its food production constitute interdependent systems. Globally, 71 percent of all the water withdrawn from the Earth’s rivers, lakes, and aquifers is devoted to agriculture. By the same token, farming practices and agricultural land use patterns can significantly affect both the quantity and quality of available water sources. Agricultural runoff contaminated by pesticides and fertilizers, for example, drives eutrophication, hypoxia, and the spread of dead zones in rivers and coastal waters, polluting aquatic ecosystems and degrading fisheries worldwide. Food and water insecurity are also interrelated at the individual and household levels. Unsafe water can heighten malnutrition risks from waterborne diseases. Inadequate access to clean water supplies may hamper people’s ability to grow and safely prepare foods, potentially pushing families to shift to less water-intensive but less nutritious foods.

Water stresses and food insecurity risks are inextricably intertwined, posing significant challenges for global development and stability.

U.S.—and global—water and food security objectives are fundamentally codependent. Ending hunger and malnutrition and ensuring sustainable agricultural production requires safe and sufficient water supplies. Worldwide, food production will have to rise 50 percent by 2050 to meet the increasing demands of growing populations, prospectively requiring global water withdrawals 30 percent greater than today. Yet an estimated 2.4 billion people now live in countries confronting water stress, and almost 40 percent of global croplands already experience water scarcity. Ensuring equitable access to adequate water services cannot be achieved where ecologically unsustainable agrifood systems compromise freshwater resources and ecosystems. Sustainable food and water security cannot practically be achieved without each other.

Capturing Food and Water Security Synergies

The U.S. Government Global Food Security Strategy 2022–2026 (GFSS) and the U.S. Government Global Water Strategy 2022–2027 (GWS) lay valuable foundations for developing substantive policy integration between the two. Both strategies identify shared challenges and set related and mutually reinforcing core objectives. The GFSS seeks to promote inclusive and sustainable agriculture-led economic growth; enhance resilience to climate change and other shocks and crises among people, communities, countries, and systems; ensure a well-nourished population, especially among women and children; as well as to improve water resources management, promote more effective governance, and advance the integration of food security, conflict sensitivity, and peacebuilding. The GWS aims to strengthen water sector governance, finance, and institutions; increase equitable access to safe, sustainable, and climate-resilient water services; improve climate-resilient management of freshwater resources and ecosystems; and anticipate and reduce conflict and fragility related to water. Second, both strategies espouse “whole-of-government” approaches, drawing together nearly the same roster of government departments and agencies to marshal and coordinate the country’s technical, diplomatic, financial, and other resources. And both strategies focus their policy engagements by targeting a select set of priority countries. Of the two dozen nations designated, sixteen countries figure on both lists, creating possibilities for country-specific programming and policy coherence.

Developing policy alignment between the GFSS and GWS could capture multiple synergies between water and food security goals. Increased resource efficiency is one such synergy. Efficient water management practices, such as drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting, not only conserve water but also enhance agricultural productivity. By integrating water-saving technologies into agricultural practices, the United States can contribute to both water conservation efforts and sustainable food production. Similarly, climate change significantly impacts both water and food security. Rising temperatures, shifting precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events degrade water and agricultural infrastructure, exacerbate water stresses, and amplify agricultural vulnerabilities. Developing climate-resilient agricultural practices, such as employing drought-resistant crop varieties and sustainable livestock management systems, can mitigate the adverse effects of climate change on both water resources and food production. Harmonizing efforts to improve climate resilience in the water and agricultural sectors can yield mutual benefits and strengthen overall adaptation strategies. Integrating water and food security initiatives can also enable a holistic approach to addressing malnutrition and waterborne diseases, particularly in vulnerable communities. By promoting sustainable agricultural practices that prioritize soil and water quality, the United States can contribute to improving nutrition outcomes and reducing the prevalence of water-related illnesses, advancing both food security and public health objectives.

Navigating the Shoals of Policy Coherence

Effectively realizing potential synergies between the global food security and water strategies, however, poses several questions and challenges. The first concerns the frameworks and processes established by the strategies themselves. Neither strategy establishes any explicit requirement, guidance, designated mechanisms, or dedicated metrics for coordinating or advancing coherence with the other. Each strategy acknowledges the alignment of certain goals that it shares with the other, but neither articulates any specific processes for pursuing them systematically and in concert. Likewise, of the twelve individual country strategies and two regional plans elaborated in 2018–2019 under the initial GFSS, only three referenced the GWS at all. (The current GFSS country plans have yet to be made public.) The present water strategy country plans make no mention of the GFSS.

A second question surrounds the structures and mechanisms of the U.S. government. The GWS and GFSS reflect two separate legislative initiatives: the 2014 Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act and the 2016 Global Food Security Act. These distinct congressional mandates endow the two strategies with differing appropriations processes, programming calendars and criteria, and performance and reporting requirements. Likewise, the different legislation underpinning the GFSS and GWS created differing arrangements of roles and responsibilities among the U.S. government agencies designated to produce and carry out the strategies. As a result, the strategies embody two differing policy structures and processes, engendering differing sets of implementation and coordination issues. Any efforts to better harmonize U.S. global food and water security engagements will have to navigate these structural challenges to increased policy coherence.

Related questions confront the policy actors and institutions within the countries where the GFSS and GWS are deployed. Both strategies emphasize the importance of collaborative U.S. engagement with host governments, implementing partners, stakeholders, and communities in the priority countries. Promoting resilient, country-owned food and water security policies and practices in the target states, though, also necessitates strengthening those countries’ domestic policy coherence. This entails building up internal governance capacities for host nation governments and stakeholders to effectively engage and coordinate with each other. Yet studies of priority countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, and Zambia attest to the persistence of policy disconnects and enduring “horizontal” inconsistencies between sectors and “vertical” incompatibilities between local, national, and international priorities and agendas. Throughout Africa, for instance, households, local communities, and national governments are responding to water and food security risks through a broad range of initiatives, from behavioral changes and technical infrastructure to nature-based solutions and institutional innovations. But extensive surveys of these interventions find that a lack of coordination across scales, sectors, and levels of governance within these countries is frequently impeding effective adaptation and generating adverse outcomes.

Another challenge concerns navigating cross-sectoral coordination between the primary objectives of the GFSS and GWS. Urban water supplies, for example, face increasing strains. The global urban population exposed to water scarcity is projected to climb from 933 million now to 1.7–2.4 billion in 2050. In many urbanizing regions, rapid population growth and urban development have led to increased water pollution, reduced agricultural land availability, and conflicts over water allocation between cities and rural areas. Against this backdrop, prospective GWS initiatives to strengthen urban water security and address urbanization impacts on water resources and ecosystems could bump up against GFSS efforts focusing on boosting agricultural productivity and food access. Worldwide, bolstering agriculture-led economic growth in the face of mounting climate risks will entail expanding irrigated farmland. But over half of the increase in irrigation area so far achieved in the twenty-first century has occurred on lands that were already water stressed. By 2050, growing urban water demands could collide with agricultural needs in over two-fifths of all river basins. Furthermore, the GFSS uniquely targets rural populations, to the exclusion of the urban poor. Given the strong correlation between household water insecurity and household food insecurity, omitting the urban poor from GFSS programming foregoes potential synergies between household-level programming addressing food insecurity and water insecurity among urban households.

Likewise, the interdependencies between water and food systems are complex and multifaceted, characterized by feedback loops, externalities, and trade-offs at different scales. Policies or interventions designed to enhance agricultural resilience to emerging climate impacts may compromise water resource availability and vice versa. In Ghana, a priority country for both the GFSS and GWS, drought and other climate stressors simultaneously strain household drinking water sources and the agricultural production on which rural economies depend. Farmers are deploying a variety of resilience strategies, including extending and intensifying irrigation. But uncoordinated increases in water withdrawals for crops can then compete with the needs of other users reliant upon the same water sources, potentially spurring conflicts between households and communities. So, too, small-scale irrigation represents a major strategy for increasing the output, incomes, food security, and climate resilience of smallholder farmers. In many low-income countries, however, women often not only bear the primary responsibility for household water collection and agricultural labor, but have limited access to irrigation technologies, credit, and extension services compared to men. In contexts of significant gender inequities, with limited agency and decisionmaking input for women, such irrigation interventions may fail to empower or even disempower women producers and negatively affect water access for households not included in the irrigation schemes.

Squaring the Policy Circle

Finally, policymakers aspiring to strengthen the coherence and cohesion of these U.S. global food security and global water strategies will inevitably have to wrestle with questions of how these initiatives dovetail with or are constrained by other U.S. policies. Thus, the GFSS and GWS emphatically espouse the goals of fortifying societal resilience against climate risks to food and water security. Yet the United States, and the world, have largely failed to help furnish the means to reach those ends. Creating climate-resilient water and agrifood systems demands substantial financing. Climate financing, though, remains woefully insufficient. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) calculates that adaptation needs in developing countries are 10 to 18 times larger than flows of international public finance, leaving an adaptation finance gap estimated at $194–366 billion per year. In Africa, home to most of the GFSS and GWS priority countries, the Global Center on Adaptation reports that $579 billion will be needed for climate adaptation through 2030. The international community has allocated nowhere near this amount. Public adaptation finance flows to developing countries fell to just $21 billion in 2021. By contrast, the UNEP estimates the annual adaptation costs for the agricultural sector in developing countries at $16 billion and the adaptation costs for river flooding alone at $54 billion per year.

Better harmonizing the GWS and the GFSS holds immense potential for addressing interconnected challenges and advancing sustainable development goals. By leveraging synergies between water and food systems, the United States can enhance resource efficiency, increase climate resilience, improve nutrition outcomes, and advance economic development. Achieving these synergies will require overcoming difficult hurdles related to cross-sectoral coordination, resource constraints, and sociopolitical dynamics. The prize, strengthening global food and water security, will contribute to greater peace and prosperity worldwide.

David Michel is the senior fellow for water security with the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

David Michel
Senior Fellow, Global Food and Water Security Program