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Poverty, hunger and freshwater linkages

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

Box 7: The water poor
The water poor can be defined as those:
whose natural livelihood base is persistently threatened by severe drought or flood;
whose livelihood depends on cultivation of food or gathering of natural products, and whose water source is not dependable or sufficient;
whose natural livelihood base is subject to erosion, degradation, or state confiscation (for example for construction of major infrastructure) without due compensation;
living far from a year-round supply of drinking water;
obliged to expend a relatively high (greater than five per cent) proportion of household income on water;
whose water supply is bacteriologically or chemically contaminated, and who cannot afford to use, or have no access to, an alternate water source;
living in areas with high levels of water-associated disease (schistosomiasis, guinea-worm, malaria, trachoma, cholera, typhoid, etc.) without means of protection; and
women and girls who spend hours a day collecting water, putting their security, education, productivity, and nutritional status at risk.
Source: GWP 2003

In terms of socio-economic status, the poorest often comprise the ‘water poor’ (Box 7). The most vulnerable in this group include women and children, the elderly, minorities including indigenous people, those suffering from HIV/AIDS and other illnesses, physical or mental impairments, and those living in arid rural areas, slums and surviving in the informal economy.

The incidence of hunger is rising again, after falling steadily during the first half of the 1990s (FAO 2003d). Between 1995–1997 and 1999–2001, the number of chronically hungry increased by more than 18 million people (FAO 2003d). The link between extreme poverty, hunger and drought is strong: over a three-year period, drought was listed as a cause in 60 per cent of all food emergencies across the world (FAO 2003d).
In developing countries, rainfed agriculture still accounts for about 60 per cent of agricultural production (FAO 2003c). Farmers who depend on rainfed agriculture in regions with insufficient or variable rainfall are, therefore, vulnerable to crop yield reduction or total crop losses caused by dry spells and drought.

Irrigation has considerably increased crop production and yields and has contributed immensely to better food security. An estimated 40 per cent of agricultural products and 60 per cent of the world’s grain is nowadays grown on irrigated land (IFPRI 2001). In 1998, irrigated land made up approximately one-fifth of total arable land in developing countries but produced two-fifths of all crops (FAO 2003c). Although food production cannot do without irrigation, current practices have caused serious environmental damage in many areas. Poor irrigation management sometimes pollutes aquifers and causes soil salanization and waterlogging, which together have affected 40 million ha of land globally (UNEP 2002b). Rehabilitation is costly but, without it, such damage to arable land will result in a reduction of productivity per hectare, and may even lead to total abandonment of severely affected areas.

In addition, agricultural irrigation practices are particularly water-intensive and sometimes wasteful. Data from 90 developing countries show that the total amount of water withdrawn for irrigation varies per region, with water use efficiency ranging from 24 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean to 39 per cent in West Asia (FAO 2003c). There is an absolute ceiling to the amount of water available in any country or region for irrigation and as that ceiling is approached it will be essential to find ways to make more efficient use of water to achieve more crop per drop.
One of the projected manifestations of climate change is altered precipitation patterns (IPCC 2001). Climate change may adversely affect the availability of freshwater for food production that could make a significant contribution to the eradication of hunger and poverty. Spatial and temporal changes in precipitation are of most concern and relevance. African communities, with their limited institutional and financial resources, would be particularly vulnerable to such changes.
The collection of rainwater for irrigation and domestic use has proved extremely valuable to deal with rainfall variability, particularly at the household and community levels (Box 8). With the right equipment or further treatment, freshwater collected in this manner can even be used as drinking water.

Box 8: Technology at work – rainwater harvesting
Diverter for the first flush from roof run-off

This age-old technology is resurfacing as a solution for providing nonor under-serviced communities with potable water at or near the point where water is needed. Recent innovations have included cleaner collection (a first flush diverter), storage and hygiene maintenance (on-site, low cost detection of contamination, purification and sterilization) and adaptation for local conditions.

Rainwater harvesting systems can be either owner or utility-operated and managed. Rainwater collected using existing structures (such as rooftops, parking lots, playgrounds, parks, ponds and flood plains), has few negative environmental impacts compared to other systems built for water resource development such as dams. Rainwater is relatively clean and of a quality usually acceptable for most purposes with little or no treatment.


Source: Murdoch University Environmental Technology Center

Other advantages of rainwater harvesting are:
it can exist with, and provide a good supplement to, other water sources and utility systems, relieving pressure where other sources are scarce;
it provides a water supply buffer for use in times of emergency or if there is a breakdown of the public water supply system, particularly during natural disasters;
users of rainwater are usually the owners and operators of the catchment system so they are likely to conserve water and prevent the storage tank from drying up or leaking;
rainwater harvesting technologies are flexible and can be adapted for almost any requirement;
construction, operation, and maintenance are not labour intensive;
rainwater is free from chlorine;
rainwater is the softest naturally-occurring source of water available (soft water contains less minerals that cause hard scale formation when water is boiled, and requires less soap for lathering than hard water); and
the security of the water supply is increased significantly with decentralized rainwater harvesting points.
Before developing a rainwater harvesting system, however, the following need to be considered:
are the catchment area and storage capacity adequate to sustain the system?
are maintenance of the system and the quality of collected water within the owner/operator’s
what measures need to be taken to prevent rainwater storage tanks from becoming breeding habitats for disease-vectors, such as the malaria mosquito?
rainwater is unlikely to contain fluoride, unlike commercial water supplies. Will users need to supplement their intake from other sources to ensure dental health? The amount of water harvested with this technology is small, but increasing, and there is an emerging worldwide movement to promote rainwater harvesting. It is, however, unclear whether the widespread use of these technologies is feasible (IFPRI 2002). Construction and maintenance costs of water harvesting systems, particularly the labour costs, are very important in determining whether a technique will be widely adopted at the individual farm or household level.

Sources: IFPRI 2002, UNEP 2002c

Aquatic ecosystems are a major source of cheap, high quality protein, such as fish, for many local communities. Degraded aquatic ecosystems, will not be able to produce as much food, and this will have negative economic impacts on people, communities and the private sector that depend on these resources. For example, the Aral Sea fisheries that used to employ more than 65 000 people have collapsed (Glazovsky 1995). These effects are particularly acute for communities living by along rivers and lake shores, who are dependent on activities such as fishing and tourism.
Part of the difficulty in meeting freshwater needs for human use is due to a mismatch between the global distribution of this resource and population distribution. The Congo River, for example, contains about a third of Africa’s total river flow, yet only about 10 per cent of Africa’s population lives within its drainage basin (Shiklomanov 1997). In Latin America and the Caribbean, about 40 per cent of the population is concentrated in 25 per cent of the territory, which only contains about 10 per cent of the region’s freshwater resources. Asia has the largest volume of renewable freshwater resources; yet per capita water availability is the lowest in the world. In contrast, Australia and New Zealand have the smallest quantity of available freshwater resources, yet the highest per person water availability in the world, because of the much smaller population (Gleick 1993).
It is clear that the plight of many of those living in poverty cannot be alleviated without a sustainable natural resource base, including freshwater (Table 2). It is essential to ensure that poverty alleviation or reduction strategies do not result in additional degradation of freshwater resources and the productivity of life-supporting systems (Hirji and Ibreek 2001).

Table 2: Water-poverty linkages
Dimension of poverty
Water – poverty linkages Factors conducive to reducing poverty
Income and consumption Sustainable growth requires development of natural capital (eg water resources) for human development and welfare, protecting and maintaining human health and protecting natural capital from irreversible damage. It must ensure that social and economic security of those dependent on the water resources for their livelihoods is not compromised Access to water for productive use, access to natural resources, sustainable growth
Inequality and equity Inequitable and unjust laws and ill-defined property rights that restrict access to, and control of, natural resources are major obstacles to efficient management of natural resources.Unfair distribution of costs and benefits and planning processes alienates affected communities from decision-making, and from sharing water development project benefits. It also fosters social stratification, limiting prospects of poverty reduction through economic growth Secure tenure and access to natural resources,water rights and entitlements
Sustainable livelihoods Natural resources remain the most important safety net available to most poor rural households Sustainable land and water use practices
Health Human health is improved by reducing exposure to water-borne and vector-borne diseases, and to toxic substances, by increasing access to clean water and adequate sanitation. Inadequate water supply and sanitation poses the largest environmental-related health threat on a global scale Water quality, safe drinking water and sanitation,waterbodies protected from vectors and disease
Security and vulnerability Poor people, particularly in developing countries, are especially vulnerable to natural disasters and changes in environmental conditions. The poor also often live in environmentally-hazardous areas (flood plains, steep slopes), thereby increasing their vulnerability Improved disaster preparedness and response, water harvesting and conservation
Inclusion and empowerment Empowering people to manage their own environment and water resources must be supported by ensuring participation of all stakeholders in decision-making, equipping people with the ability to monitor and influence resource allocations, creating user organizations, transferring operation and maintenance responsibility to the water users, and other measures Participation, devolution of ownership, rights, and responsibilities to water users
Source: Adapted from Hirji and Ibreek 2001


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