ImageMy objective of this blog is to highlight this inter-linkage between food and water security in the special context of India and in general, formulating a few strategic options to enable the players of this sector for adopting appropriate adaptation and mitigation measures in the aegis of climate change.

To begin with, I would like to introduce you to the Emissions Scenarios of the IPCC Special Report.  IPCC has developed a set of scenarios to represent the range of driving forces and emissions in the scenario literature so as to reflect current understanding and knowledge about underlying uncertainties. These scenarios could be summarized as below.

A1. The A1 storyline and scenario family describes a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and the rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies. Major underlying themes are convergence among regions, capacity building and increased cultural and social interactions, with a substantial reduction in regional differences in per capita income. The A1 scenario family develops into three groups that describe alternative directions of technological change in the energy system. The three A1 groups are distinguished by their technological emphasis: fossil intensive (A1FI), non fossil energy sources (A1T), or a balance across all sources (A1B) (where balanced is defined as not relying too heavily on one particular energy source, on the assumption that similar improvement rates apply to all energy supply and end use technologies).

A2. The A2 storyline and scenario family describes a very heterogeneous world. The underlying theme is self reliance and preservation of local identities. Fertility patterns across regions converge very slowly, which results in continuously increasing population. Economic development is primarily regionally oriented and per capita economic growth and technological change more fragmented and slower than other storylines.

B1. The B1 storyline and scenario family describes a convergent world with the same global population, that peaks in midcentury and declines thereafter, as in the A1 storyline, but with rapid change in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource efficient technologies. The emphasis is on global solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability, including improved equity, but without additional climate initiatives.

B2. The B2 storyline and scenario family describes a world in which the emphasis is on local solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability. It is a world with continuously increasing global population, at a rate lower than A2, intermediate levels of economic development, and less rapid and more diverse technological change than in the B1 and A1 storylines. While the scenario is also oriented towards environmental protection and social equity, it focuses on local and regional levels.

This illustration depicts that food and water security is major concern under the A2, B1 and B2 scenarios. The reasons for this could be the attributes like continuous population growths, slow technological innovations, low energy utilization and slower economic development.

The vulnerability of these scenarios could be further differentiated based on the physical impacts of climate change. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warns that the progress in human develop­ment achieved over the last decade may be slowed down or even reversed by climate change, as new threats emerge to water and food security, agri­cultural production and access, and nutrition and public health. The impacts of climate change – sea level rise, droughts, heat waves, floods and rainfall variation – could, by 2080, push another 600 million people into malnutrition and increase the number of people facing water scarcity by 1.8 billion (UNDP 2008). 

Agriculture constitutes the backbone of most economies of developing countries. It is the largest contributor to GDP; the biggest source of foreign exchange, accounting for about 40% of the foreign currency earn­ings; and the main generator of savings and tax rev­enues. In addition, about two-thirds of manufacturing value-added is based on agricultural raw materials. Agriculture remains crucial for pro-poor economic growth in most developing countries, as rural areas sup­port 70-80% of the total population. More than in any other sector, improvements in agricultural perform­ance have the potential to increase rural incomes and purchasing power for large numbers of people to lift them out of poverty (Wiggins, 2006).

And, climate change, however, is causing the greatest threat to agriculture and food security in the 21st century, particularly in many of the poor, agriculture-based countries of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), Asia with their low capacity to effectively cope (Shah et al., 2008; Nellemann et al., 2009).  The agriculture of these countries is already under stress as a result of population increase, industrialization and urbanization, competition over resource use, degradation of resources, and insufficient public spending for rural infrastructure and services. The impact of climate change is likely to exacerbate these stresses even further.

The outlook for the coming decades is that agricul­tural productivity needs to continue to increase and will require more water to meet the demands of grow­ing populations. Ensuring equitable access to water and its benefits now and for future generations is a major challenge as scarcity and competition increase. The amount of water allocated to agriculture and water management choices will determine, to a large extent, whether societies achieve economic and social development and environmental sustainability (Molden et al., 2007).

For both rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, the spatial and temporal variation of precipitation is the key. The short-term variability of rainfall is a major risk factor. Soil moisture deficits, crop damage and crop disease are all driven by rainfall and associ­ated humidity. The variability in rainfall intensity and duration makes the performance of agricultural systems in relation to long term climate trends very difficult to anticipate. This is particularly the case for rain-fed production.

Although the different climate change models are not clear with respect to rainfall and periods of drought, temperature projections are generally more reliable. Increased evaporation and evapotranspira­tion with associated soil-moisture deficits will impact rain-fed agriculture (Bates et al., 2008). Recent esti­mates show that for each 1°C rise in average tempera­ture dry-land farm profits in least developing countries will drop by nearly 10% (FAO, 2008). In addition, increased evaporation of open water storage can be expected to reduce water availability for irrigation and hydropower generation.

Despite considerable uncertainty related to the impacts of climate change, the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) predicts decreasing rainfall in northern and southern part of the globe and increasing rainfall over the Ethiopian/East African Highlands and a considerable increase in frequency of floods and drought. In India a similar fashion of variation in rainfall pattern and temperature fluctuation is also expected. This signifies that some part of the country will face serious consequences owing to climate change induced water scarcity.

The severity of climate change on food security is prominently visible in four dimensions, viz.,

  1. a.      Food production and availability: Climate affects food production directly through changes in agro-ecological conditions and indirectly by affecting growth and distribution of incomes, and thus demand for agricultural produce. Changes in land suitability, potential yields (e.g. CO2 fertilization) and production of current cultivars are likely. Shifts in land suitability are likely to lead to increases in suitable cropland in higher latitudes and declines of potential cropland in lower latitudes.
  2. b.      Stability of food supplies: Weather conditions are expected to become more variable than at present, with increasing frequency and severity of extreme events. Greater fluctuation in crop yields and local food supplies can adversely affect the stability of food supplies and food security. Climatic fluctuations will be most pronounced in semi-arid and sub-humid regions and are likely to reduce crop yields and livestock numbers and productivity. As these areas are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the poorest regions with the highest levels of chronic undernourishment will be exposed to the highest degree of instability.
  3. c.       Access to food: Access to food refers to the ability of individuals, communities and countries to purchase food in sufficient quantities and quality. Falling real prices for food and rising real incomes over the last 30 years have led to substantial improvements in access to food in many developing countries. Possible food price increases and declining rates of income growth resulting from climate change may reverse this trend.
  4. d.      Food utilization: Climate change may initiate a vicious circle where infectious diseases, including water-borne diseases, cause or compound hunger, which, in turn, makes the affected population more susceptible to those diseases. Results may include declines in labour productivity and an increase in poverty, morbidity and mortality.  [Source: Schmidhuber and Tubiello; 2007].

With this background, one can visualize that food security, and rural livelihoods are intrinsically linked to water availability and use. Food security is determined by the options people have to secure access to own agricultural production and exchange opportunities. These opportunities are influenced by access to water. Making these water-livelihoods linkages is impor­tant for a more complete understanding of the nature of vulnerability of households to climate-related haz­ards such as drought, and the multi-faceted impacts that water security has on food and livelihood secu­rity. In order to highlight such linkages, there has been a move in recent years towards looking at water issues through sustainable livelihood frameworks (ie. Calow, 2002; Nicol and Slaymaker, 2003). One main feature of climate change adaptation at local level is its attempt to increase the resilience of populations to climate-related hazards. This means assessing the populations at risk of water and food insecurity. Risk is determined by, first, the external hazard and, second, the characteristics of the popu­lation that increase or decrease their susceptibility to the harm caused by the hazard.

Increasing the understanding of water use and livelihood strategies is an important part in the assessment of water stress and drought impacts and, as such, will be key in the assessment of climate change impacts. The concept of ‘water security’ is increasingly used to describe the outcome of the relationship between the availability of water, its accessibility and use. Water security is defined as ‘availability of, and access to, water in sufficient quantity and quality to meet livelihood needs of all households throughout the year, without prejudicing the needs of other users’ (Calow et al., n.a.).

Calow et al. (n.a.) distinguish three links between water, health, production and household income. First, lack of access to adequate water supply, both in quality and quantity, for domestic uses can be a major cause of declining nutritional status and of disease and morbidity. Second, domestic water is often a pro­duction input. Such production is essential for direct household consumption and/or income generation. Third, the amount of time used to collect water, and related health hazards, can be immense, especially for women and girls, and has been well documented (e.g. Magrath and Tesfu, 2006).

Water management for agricultural production is a critical component that needs to adapt in the face of both climate and socio-economic pressures in the coming decades. Changes in water use will be driven by the combined effects of (i) changes in water avail­ability, (ii) changes in water demand for agriculture, as well as from competing sectors including urban development and industrialization, and (iii) changes in water management.

With regard to agricultural production and water, climate change adaptation may include (Bates et al., 2008):

  • Adoption of varieties and species of crops with increased resistance to heat stress, shock and drought. For example, a private-public partnership under the leadership of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) intends to develop drought-tolerant African maize. This initiative, though, is not uncontested as it uses biotechnology besides conventional breeding and marker-assisted breeding techniques (;
  • Modification of irrigation techniques, including amount, timing or technology (e.g. drip irrigation systems);
  • Adoption of water-efficient technologies to ‘harvest’ water, conserve soil moisture (e.g. crop residue retention, zero-tillage), and reduce siltation and saltwater intrusion;
  • Improved water management to prevent waterlogging, erosion and nutrient leaching;
  • Modification of crop calendars, i.e., timing or location of cropping activities;
  • Integration of the crop, livestock, forestry and fishery sectors at farm and catchment levels;
  • Implementation of seasonal climate forecasting;
  • Additional adaptation strategies may involve land-use changes that take advantage of modified agro-climatic conditions.

Water-related adaptation strategies will also affect the livestock sub-sector. Adaptation strategies include improved rotation of pastures, modification of times of grazing, changing animal species and breeds, inte­gration of the crop and livestock systems, including the use of adapted forage crops, and provisions of adequate water supplies.

It is widely believed – and many Climate Change National Adaptation Plans (NAPAs) emphasize that irriga­tion will be a major adaptation approach in the agricultural sector. The problem with this strategy, however, is that adaptation practices that involve increased irrigation water use may place additional stress on water and environmental resources on the one hand, and will be influenced by changes in water availability resulting from climate change on the other.

The IPCC (Bates et al., 2008) concludes that, if widely adopted, adaptation strategies in agricultural production systems have a substantial potential to offset negative climate change impacts and can even take advantage of positive ones. At the same time, they can contribute to an increase in agricultural pro­duction sustainably. They further conclude, however, that not much is known about how effective and widely adopted the different adaptation strategies really are. Reasons for this include complex decision making processes; the diversity of responses across regions; time lags in implementation; and possible economic, institutional and cultural barriers to change. Government support that would help poor smallholders to adapt is very limited. On top of this, developing countries have received less than 10% of the money promised by rich countries to help them adapt to global warming (Vidal, 2009).

Policy attention, by national governments and trans-national bodies will, increasingly, have to focus on the coordination of water uses across transbound­ary river-basins and across different sectors, and arbi­tration in increasing conflicts over water.

If precipitation decreases, and the demand for additional irrigation water is to be satisfied, then other demands (e.g. manufacturing, industry, urban consumption, etc.) will become much more diffi­cult to satisfy. Climate change and increased water demand for agriculture in future decades is antici­pated to be an added challenge to transboundary framework agreements, increasing the potential for conflict.

Unilateral measures for adapting to climate-change-related water shortages by, for example, increasing storage capacity upstream, increas­ing investment in irrigation infrastructure and efficient water-use technologies, or revising land tenure and land use arrangements, can lead to increased competition for water resources. Regulation at national and trans-national levels needs, therefore, to be enhanced to deal with the unintended consequences of increased consumptive water use upstream, resulting in downstream users being deprived of the water on which they depend for their livelihoods.

To sum up, a number of adaptation options in agriculture face a dilemma. Increasing water availability and increas­ing the reliability of water in agriculture, i.e. through irrigation, is one of the preferred options to increase productivity and contribute to poverty reduction. In addition, the interrelations between adaptation and mitigation need to be carefully considered (Bates et al., 2008). At best, adaptation and mitigation strat­egies exhibit synergies. Positive examples include many carbon-sequestration practices involving reduced tillage, increased crop cover, including agro-forestry, and use of improved rotation systems. These lead to production systems that are more resilient to climate variability, thus providing good adaptation in view of increased pressure on water and soil resource. In the worst case, they are counter-productive. In relation to water, examples of adaptation strategies that run counter to mitigation are those that depend on energy to deliver water and, therefore, produce additional greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, some mitigation strategies may have negative adaptation consequences, such as increasing the dependence on biofuel crops, which may compete for water and land resources, reduce biodiversity and increase mono-cropping, increasing vulnerability to climatic extremes.

Short-term plans to address food insecurity pro­vide access to water resources, or encourage eco­nomic growth must be placed in the context of future climate change, to ensure that short-term activities in a particular area do not increase vulnerability to climate change in the long term. Policy attention is needed in the following areas:

  1. Developing long-term water policies and related strategies, taking into account country-specific legal, institutional, economic, social, physical and environmental conditions
  2. Increasing water productivity by promoting efficient irrigation and drainage systems
  3. Improved watershed and resource management, integrating the different natural resources – water, soil, flora and fauna
  4. Enhancing water availability through better use of groundwater storage, enhancing groundwater recharge where feasible, and increasing surface water storage.
  5. Institutional and governance reforms that balance demand and supply across sectors and that mainstream climate change adaptation;
  6. Enhancing stakeholder participation in water development and climate change adaptation;
  7. Improve information and early warning systems to provide land and water users with timely and adequate information and knowledge about availability and suitability of resources to promote sustainable agriculture
  8. Human resource, capacity and skills development of policy makers and end-users to help them deal with new challenges;
  9. Increase investments in agriculture and rural development.


  1. Bates, B.C., Kundzewicz, Z.W., Wu, S. and Palutikof, J.P. (eds) (2008) ‘Climate Change and Water’. Technical Paper of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva: IPCC Secretariat.
  2. FAO (2008) ‘Hunger on the rise’, accessed 20/02/2009).
  3. FAO (2008) ‘Water for Agriculture and Energy in Africa: The Challenges of Climate Change’. Ministerial Conference on Water for Agriculture and Energy in Africa: The Challenges of Climate Change. December. Sirte, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
  4. FAO (2008) ‘Water for Agriculture in Africa: Resources and Challenges in the Context of Climate Change’. Ministerial Conference on Water for Agriculture and Energy in Africa: The Challenges of Climate Change. December. Sirte, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
  5. IPCC (2007). Fourth Assessment Report, Working Group-I, II and III
  6. Magrath, P. and Tesfu, M. (2006) Meeting the needs for water and sanitation of people living with HIV/AIDS in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Addis Ababa: WaterAid Ethiopia.
  7. Molden, D. (ed.) (2007) Water for Food, Water for Life. London: Earthscan and Colombo: International Water Management Institute.
  8. Nellemann, C., MacDevette, M., Manders, T., Eickhout, B., Svihus, B., Prins, A. and Kaltenborn, B. (eds) (2009) The Environmental Food Crisis. The environment’s role in averting future food crises. A UNEP rapid response assessment. Arendal, UNDP.
  9. ODI (2009) Climate change and Water.
  10. Schmidhuber, J. and Tubiello, F. N. (2007) ‘Global food security under climate change’, PNAS 104 (50): 19703-08.
  11. Shah, M., Fischer, G. and van Velthuizen, H. (2008) Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture. The Challenges of Climate Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. Laxenburg: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
  12. UNDP (2008) Fighting Climate Change – Human Solidarity in a Divided World. New York: UNDP.
  13. Vidal, J. (2009) ‘Rich nations failing to meet climate aid pledges’, The Guardian, 20 February.
  14. Wiggins, S. (2006) Agricultural growth and poverty reduction: A scoping study. Working Paper No. 2 on Globalization, Growth and Poverty. Ottawa: IDRC.
  15. Wiggins S. (2008) ‘Rising Food Prices – A global crisis’. Briefing paper No 37. London: ODI. 

Keshav C Das

Senior Advisor, SNV Netherlands Development Organsiation



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