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Agriculture, nutrition, health: the new global focus begins

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I am attending the “Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health” conference under way in New Delhi. Organised by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), this is a sprawling conference with over 900 international participants from all three sectors.

What’s it all about? “Agriculture is much more than just producing food and other products. It is linked to people’s well-being in many ways, and it has the potential to do much more to improve their nutrition and reduce their health risks. But to accomplish this, we need to re-imagine agriculture,” said Shenggen Fan, director general of IFPRI.

The gathering is meant to examine ways in which agriculture can enhance the health and nutritional status of poor people in developing countries. To work toward this goal, said IFPRI, they have brought experts together (I’m civil society, and there are very few NGOs/CBOs here) from all three sectors “to take stock of current knowledge, share information and best practices, and build consensus on the actions most needed to move forward”.

Here’s the IFPRI rationale. Agricultural scientists have traditionally focused on developing more productive crops and livestock and on reducing their susceptibility to disease. IFPRI and the conference sponsors (list below) say that by incorporating nutrition as a goal, researchers and breeders could provide farmers with a wide range of healthier products. For example, breeding crops with higher levels of micronutrients like vitamin A and iron can potentially reduce death and disease, especially among women and children.

“Increasing crop productivity overall is not enough. A new paradigm for agricultural development is needed, so that agricultural growth leads also to improved nutrition and health,” said Fan. The CGIAR (the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) and the conference sponsors say that improvements in other factors such as land distribution, women’s status, rural infrastructure, and health status, can have a positive effect on nutrition, the paper contends. “Complementary investments in rural roads, nutrition programs, and other targeted interventions can make a huge impact.”

IFPRI's agriculture, nutrition and health logo

The development community needs to be conscious of the entire “value chain” – which is a central concept running through the discussions and presentations here. This is defined as including production, storage, transportation, marketing, and consumption, “as all of these have implications for health and nutrition”. Moreover, “after harvest, there are opportunities for improving health and nutrition, from better storage and transport to stronger nutritional marketing from retailers”.

The conference features heavyweights in the international agricultural research sector and representatives from the major UN agencies involved in these sectors. The proceedings were inaugurated by India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. M S Swaminathan was there; John Kufuor (former president, Ghana), David Nabarro, UN Special Representative on Food Security and Nutrition, and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, head of India’s Planning Commission were all there.

The conference concludes on 12 February and it will take me a few days to put my thoughts together on the themes and what they represent – the implications beyond the powerpoint world and what is driving this new focus.

The sponsors: Asian Development Bank; Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Canadian International Development Agency; Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) (ACP-EU Cotonou Agreement); Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ); International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); Indian Economic Association; International Development Research Center, Canada / Le Centre de recherches pour le développement international (IDRC-CRDI); Irish Aid; PepsiCo; UK Department for International Development (DFID); United States Agency for International Development (USAID); Feed the Future Initiative; The World Bank.

The race to own India’s water

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Image courtesy 'UN-Water Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) 2010', World Health Organization (WHO) and UN-WaterWater privatisation in India today comes in a wide range of what are called “solutions” by the votaries of public-private partnerships. There is water-related engineering and construction (such as earth-moving activities, alteration of river courses, artificial linking of rivers, building of dams and pipelines, etc), water and wastewater services, and water treatment, which affect both nature and communities. What remains outside the ambit of “solutions” – only until the victims can be persuaded to pay – are the impacts of the micro-scale geoengineering. Every impact damages people and the environment. Impacts can be categorised as: ecological (effects on natural ecosystems), social (related to rights of human beings and communities, health, cultural norms, attitudes, belief systems), economic (affecting livelihoods, well-being, and access to basic services) and even legal and institutional.

We are now seeing increasing pressure for private sector development in India – and the rest of Asia-Pacific. Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, an independent research unit concerned with water in India (they are based in Madhya Pradesh) says that this pressure is being mounted mainly by two influential international financial institutions: the World Bank and its regional partner, the Asian Development Bank. The World Bank gives funds, advice, training and technical assistance to governments and the private sector to implement privatisation.

Courtesy, The Economist, special report on water, 22 May 2010Four entities allow the World Bank to undertake various functions. The International Finance Corporation (IFC) lends directly to the private sector and can even purchase equity in private companies. The Public Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF) seeks to improve the quality of infrastructure through private participation. The Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA) insures the private sector against commercial and political risk. The International Court for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) takes charge of disputes between investors and states. The Bank also has some other mechanisms that promote its activities in India including Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), Water and Sanitation for Urban Poor (WSUP), Water for Asian Cities (WAC) and others. The World Bank’s funding partners include the JBIC, AusAid, GTZ, USAID, DFID, UN-Habitat and the ADB.

More growth in large cities and towns, and urbanisation becoming a dominant land use pattern in more districts of India mean that the industrial, residential and municipal demands for water are rising quickly. India’s Central Pollution Control Board (an agency of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India) has released its ‘Observation on trend of Water Supply, Wastewater Generation in Cities and Towns’. Here are its main comments and highlights. I’ve left the language as it is – the import is what counts.

Courtesy, The Economist, special report on water, 22 May 2010

From The Economist's special report on water, 22 May 2010: Global water sources

“In decade of 90’s the growth of cities is observed is 33% while the growth of the decade in beginning of millennium is slowed down. Metropolitan cities is increased from 3 to 6 Nos. from 80’s to 2008. Class-I cities increase from 37 to 53 Nos. Class-II towns increase from 22 to 35. This trend indicates that all type of cities has grown in the decade of 90’s.”

Findings and Recommendations

  • Since the cities are growing, the population is enhanced from 30 million to 48 million.
  • Consequently water supply has been increased approximately twice in magnitude from 4,970 MLD (million litres per day) to 8,782 MLD.
  • Sewage generation has risen 38%.
  • Comparing the data of decades of 90’s to 2008, it is indicated that coastal cities and towns are not growing significantly.
  • Treatment capacity of sewage in comparison to decade of 80’s to until now has increased almost double (93%).
  • There are 498 Class-I Cities having population of 257 million and 410 Class-II Towns having population in India.
  • Total water supply including all class-I cities and class-II town in India is 48,093.88 MLD.

The CPCB says that wastewater generation from all class I cities and class II towns is 38,254 MLD whereas the installed treatment capacity is 11,787 MLD, which means that no more than a maximum of 31% of total sewage generated can be treated. (If the question is ‘where does the rest go?’, the CPCB answers that too in its report.) “This evidently indicates ominous position of sewage treatment, which is the main source of pollution of rivers and lakes,” warns the CPCB report. “To improve the water quality of rivers and lakes, there is an urgent need to increase sewage treatment capacity and its optimum utilisation.”

Image courtesy 'UN-Water Global Annual Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water (GLAAS) 2010', World Health Organization (WHO) and UN-WaterThe CPCB, which thankfully still has a reputation for straight talking, has advised India’s municipalities and town administrations to “set up a very thoughtful action plan to fill this gap in a minimum time frame”. The CPCB has suggested that large cities in which and from which the pollution problem is more severe, cities/towns whose effluents and sewage are polluting rivers and water bodies “will be required to be taken up on priority basis in first phase”. Why is the CPCB so insistent? Quite simply, it says there is an “urgency of preventing pollution of our water bodies and preserving our precious water resources”.

But even in the India of non-city and non-town landscapes, there are plans being hatched by the would-be water merchants. An indication of the mischief afoot comes from a report righteously entitled ‘Pro-Poor Financial Services for Rural Water: Linking the Water Sector to Rural Finance’. (If so many good deeds are ‘pro-poor’ nowadays how come the ranks of the do-gooders is only increasing?) Here is what it says: “Previous studies suggest that a considerable demand for pro-poor financial services for water in rural areas remains unmet. The number of potential microfinance clients in rural areas for investments in water supply is estimated to be 5.0 million in East/Southeast Asia, 10.3 million in South Asia, and 3.1 million in sub-Saharan Africa.” Those three numbers get to the heart of the matter.

The report continues: “Concerning microloans for rural sanitation, there are 17 million potential clients in East/ Southeast Asia, 30.8 million in South Asia, and 4.4 million in sub-Saharan Africa. In total, the potential demand for micro-loans in these three regions is estimated at US $ 1.5 billion in the case of rural water supply, and US $ 5 billion in the case of rural sanitation. The challenge is how to unlock this latent demand and turn it into an effective process.” The authors make no bones about it, the riches at the bottom of the water table is what they’re after. And who are the authors? The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (well-known as GTZ in Asia, and which I was surprised to learn is a GmbH), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and of course the World Bank.

Courtesy, The Economist, special report on water, 22 May 2010

Cover of The Economist's special report on water, 22 May 2010

The water merchants have their cheerleading squad in place in the form of a pliant media, and The Economist has obliged by bringing out one of its typically characterless ‘surveys’, as it likes to call them. It is a special report on water (the 22 May 2010 issue) and the subject is dealt with in the sycophantic manner that the weekly reserves for the captains of industry. “Yet even if it takes two litres of groundwater to produce a litre of bottled water, companies like CocaCola and PepsiCo are hardly significant users compared with farmers and even many industrial producers.” (Hear, hear, who needs those pesky farmers anyway?) “PepsiCo has nevertheless become the first big company to declare its support for the human right to water. For its part, CocaCola is one of a consortium of companies that in 2008 formed the 2030 Water Resources Group, which strives to deal with the issue of water scarcity. Last year it commissioned a consultancy, McKinsey, to produce a report on the economics of a range of solutions.” This transatlantic weekly, once upon a time British, puts in a word for big dams too: “Dams and reservoirs certainly need constant repairs and careful maintenance and do not always get them, usually because the necessary institutions are not in place.”

Who are operating as water merchants and what do they want? There are several North American / West European companies now in India: Ondeo-Degrement, Veolia Environnement, Saur of France, RWE/Thames Water of Germany and the UK Bechtel, Enron (US), Compagnie Generale des Eaux (CGE). Indian companies are going to either compete with them, or join them – Tata subsidiary Jamshedpur Utilities and Services Company (JUSCO), IVRCL Infrastructures and Projects, Mahindra Infrastructure Ltd., IL&FS.

Surat, Gujarat, near the mouth of the Tapi river

Surat, Gujarat: Fishing boats near the mouth of the Tapi river

The foreign multinationals are involved in several projects across the country. Compagnie Generale des Eaux (CGE) is operating urban water supply project in Hubli-Dharwad in Karnataka. Veolia is operating water and wastewater plant in Nagpur in Maharashtra and it has also formed a joint venture with JUSCO. Ondeo-Degremont has won contracts to construct water treatment plants in Mumbai and Chennai and it is also operating a wastewater treatment plant in Delhi. Thames Water was involved in a leak reduction project in Bangalore while United Utilities and Bechtel are partners in the Tiruppur project. JUSCO has projects in Jamshedpur, Bhopal, Kolkata and Adityapur. IVRCL is working on a wastewater treatment project in Alandur, desalination in Chennai and solid waste management in Tiruppur. IL&FS is involved in various projects in Haldia, Tiruppur, Vishakhapatnam and municipal waste processing facilities in Delhi and Ajmer, Rajasthan.

The CPCB has outlined the water, sewage and pollution tasks for cities, but its worries are going to be transformed into “a challenge to unlock latent demand” by the multilateral lending organisations on the one hand and the global water merchants (together with their Indian partners). Already deficit in terms of civic infrastructure and struggling with yawning gaps in the provision of healthcare and education, India’s towns and small cities will pass the burden of water profiteering on to those who can’t afford it. They leave the rural districts to earn a living in the cities, when their water rupee gets squeezed down to the last drop, where will they go then?

‘Do or die’ year for agriculture

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“If we don’t take steps to address the serious ecological, economic and social crises facing our farm families, we will be forced to support foreign farmers, through extensive food imports.”
“This will result in a rise in food inflation, increase the rural-urban and rich-poor divides and allow the era of farmers’ suicides to persist.”
“On the other hand, we have a unique opportunity for ensuring food for all by mobilizing the power of Yuva and Mahila Kisans and by harnessing the vast untapped yield reservoir existing in most farming systems through synergy between technology and public policy.”
“2010 is a do or die year for Indian agriculture.”

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

An increased number of residents of the terai are now food insecure as a result of unusually heavy rains earlier this month

So says Prof M S Swaminathan, India’s best-known agriculture scientist, who established the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in 1988. Chastened by the limitations of the ‘green revolution’, the MSSRF’s mission is the conservation and enhancement of natural resources, and generation of agricultural, rural and off-farm employment with a particular emphasis on the poor and the women.

Swaminathan made these points in a blunt, hard-hitting and no-nonsense convocation address at the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana on 10 February 2010. The content of his address should have attracted national attention, because of the urgency of his tone and also because of the specific, very feasible institutional transformations his suggestions will need. He talked about adaptation to climate change and explained that a group of scientists led by the MSSRF have undertaken studies during the last five years in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh on climate change adaptation measures. The districts chosen were Udaipur in Rajasthan and Mehabubnagar in Andhra Pradesh. The approach adopted was to bring about a blend of traditional wisdom and modern science through farmer participatory research.

MSS mentioned five particular points of adaptation:
1. Water conservation and sustainable and equitable use
2. Promoting fodder security
3. More crop and income per drop of water
4. Weather information for all and climate literacy
5. Strengthening community institutions

He said these interventions were supported by training and skill development and education and social mobilization. A training manual was prepared by MSSRF for training one woman and one male member of every Panchayat as Climate Risk Managers. Such local level Climate Risk Managers will be well trained in the art and science of managing weather abnormalities. The work has highlighted the need for location specific adaptation measures and for participatory research and knowledge management.

“The adaptation interventions have also highlighted the need for mainstreaming gender considerations in all interventions. Women will suffer more from Climate Change, since they have been traditionally in charge of collecting water, fodder and fuel wood, and have been shouldering the responsibility for farm animal care and post-harvest technology. All interventions should therefore be pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women.”

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

Sujit Kumar Mondal and his wife Rupashi Mondal of Gopalgonj district in southern Bangladesh working in their floating garden.

“It is clear that to promote location specific and farmer-centric adaptation measures; India will need a Climate Risk Management Research and Extension Centre at each of the 127 agro-ecological regions in the country. Such centres should prepare Drought, Flood and Good Weather Codes what can help to minimize the adverse impact of abnormal weather and to maximize the benefits of favourable monsoons and temperature. Risk surveillance and early warning should be the other responsibilities of such centres. Thus the work done so far has laid the foundation for a Climate Resilient Agriculture Movement in India. The importance of such a Movement will be obvious considering the fact that 60% of India’s population of 1.1 billion depend upon agriculture for their livelihood. In addition, India has to produce food, feed and fodder for over 1.1 billion human, and over a billion farm animal population.”

It is a shared responsibility, said MSS, and one that the non-farming, urban population must recognise and help bear. “Urban and non-farming members of the human family should realize that we live on this planet as the guests of sunlight and green plants, and of the farm women and men who toil in sun and rain, and day and night, to produce food for over 6 billion people, by bringing about synergy between green plants and sunlight. Let us salute the farmers of the world and help them to help in achieving the goal of a hunger free world, the first among the U N Millennium Development Goals.”

These points are made at a time when India (or rather the central government and key ministries) still places economic growth as a priority rather than ecologically sustainable existence which is mindful of cultural traditions and which builds on extensive systems of traditional knowledge to take a human development route that is climate neutral. From 2007 onwards, there have been major intergovernmental and international studies on the impacts of climate change (including on agriculture). Several of these have shown that in South and East Asia, rice yields are affected. For most crops and regions, carbon fertilisation accentuates the positive impacts and mitigates the negative ones. However, there is considerable uncertainty about the true impact of carbon fertilisation. Among developing countries, the number of countries which ‘lose’ exceed the number of countries that ‘gain’, and their decrease in cereal production was greater than gains elsewhere.

Developing countries are worse off, where agriculture is concerned, said an OECD study in 2008 titled ‘Costs of Inaction on Key Environmental Challenges’. For example, the scenario with the highest CO2 concentration showed a 7% decline for developing countries. For developed countries, yields actually increased under all scenarios, but the global effect was always negative, or (at best) neutral. Not only was there significant variation across countries; the implications for the risk of hunger also varied greatly, depending on assumptions made about the fertilising effects of increasing CO2 concentrations.

“Assuming ‘no action’ is taken with respect to emissions, positive changes in yields (due to warming, precipitation, and crop fertilisation) in mid and high latitudes were predicted to be more than compensated by reductions in the lower latitudes, particularly in Africa and the Indian sub-continent. Changing crop yields (and demands) will affect market prices for agricultural output, as well as land prices. Decreases in agricultural yields in developing countries are likely to have significant implications for risk of hunger.”

Moreover, there has been evidence enough of the links between reducing poverty and strengthening agriculture. A paper produced by DFID (the British official aid agency, in 2004) emphasises the historically close correlation between different rates of poverty reduction over the past 40 years and differences in agricultural performance – particularly the rate of growth of agricultural productivity. There are links described between agriculture and poverty reduction through four ‘transmission mechanisms’: 1) direct impact of improved agricultural performance on rural incomes; 2) impact of cheaper food for both urban and rural poor; 3) agriculture’s contribution to growth and the generation of economic opportunity in the non-farm sector; and 4) agriculture’s fundamental role in stimulating and sustaining economic transition, as countries (and poor people’s livelihoods) shift away from being primarily agricultural towards a broader base of manufacturing and services.

Why is this so important to India and so important now? An ADB paper explains (‘A General Equilibrium Analysis of the Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture in the People’s Republic of China’, by Fan Zhai, Tun Lin, and Enerelt Byambadorj, Asian Development Bank, 2010). Despite rapid growth in recent decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is no exception to the effects of climate change. It also faces a great challenge to meet increasing demand for agricultural products due to increasing population and income level in the coming years. In the PRC, agriculture accounted for 11.7% of the national gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 and agricultural crop land occupied 157 million hectares. Agricultural production has enabled the country to feed a population of 1.3 billion people, more than a fifth of the world’s population, of whom 900 million live in rural areas, from an eighth of the world’s arable land.

“Global climate change could cause rises in temperature, redistribution of rainfall, and more frequent flooding and droughts, and do considerable damage to crop production and the agricultural sector in general,” says the ADB paper. “At the national level, overall impact on crop production, assuming there is no carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilisation, is an estimated 7 to 14% reduction in rice, 9 to 10% reduction in maize, and 2 to 9% reduction in wheat. Assuming an average drop of 7%, this means a reduction of almost 40 million metric tons of food grain, and 20% of the global grain trade. Such a loss would undermine food security in the PRC, with particular health consequences for the poor and women, as females are primarily responsible for feeding the family.”