West Africa, the Dutch and the Water-Food Nexus

While the West African population is rapidly growing in size, local harvests yield less and less due to unpredictable rain patterns as a result of climate change. It is clear that food security is under threat in the region, and that West Africa urgently needs a new approach to food production. The transition towards a sustainable, climate-smart food system requires us to combine interdisciplinary knowledge in agri-food and water. The Dutch, world leaders in both food production and water management, have a lot to contribute!

West Africa: Where climate change meets population pressure

Production of local staple foods in West Africa is traditionally small-scale and rain-fed. As such, it is highly dependent on regular weather patterns with predictable rainy seasons. But recent years have been warmer and drier than usual, and rainfall has become less reliable. Extreme weather conditions like prolonged droughts and flooding are becoming more prevalent. Desertification is taking place: Sahel-like dry savanna landscapes are spreading southwards. Climate change is hitting West Africa, and it has disastrous consequences for food security, as the harvests of staple crops such as millet, yam and cassava are failing.

Meanwhile, the number of mouths to feed is growing rapidly. Between 1950 and 2015, the West African population has seen a fivefold increase, growing from 73 million to 367 million people. No region in the world has grown faster. And with almost half of the population reaching fertile age in the near future, growth rates will only increase. By 2059, the population is expected to exceed one billion. Almost one in 10 of the world’s people will be West African. A major part of this growth is taking place in Nigeria, which has gone from 38 million in 1950 to its current 190 million inhabitants. By 2050, Nigeria will have passed the 400 million threshold, making it the third most populous country in the world.

Considering the above, it is clear that food security is under threat in the region. Estimates of the increase of food production needed vary between 25 and 70%, depending on the assumptions made about efficiency and consumption pattern changes. West Africa urgently needs a new approach to food production that can deliver, that is able to play into the rapidly increasing demand while dealing with changing climatic conditions.

Climate-Smart Agriculture: Towards sustainable food systems

The concept of climate-smart agriculture (CSA) is gaining momentum in recent years. The most commonly used definition, provided by FAO, defines CSA as “agriculture that sustainably increases productivity, enhances resilience (adaptation), reduces/removes GHGs (mitigation) where possible, and enhances achievement of national food security and development goals”. And although it is clear that sustainable, climate-smart food systems should be low in emissions, adaptation is recognized as being of greater immediate importance than mitigation in the West African context. After all, West African agriculture emits relatively few greenhouse gasses, but an estimated 95% of African-grown crops are vulnerable to irregular weather conditions and land degradation.

Adaptation to climate change, more concretely, should focus on “reducing exposure to short-term risks, enhancing capacity to adapt and develop in the face of shocks and longer-term stresses, and maintaining healthy ecosystems that provide environmental services to farmers”.

African policymakers are also recognizing the urgency of transforming local food systems. In this vein, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has recently launched a new flagship program on CSA as part of its multi-annual Feed Africa Strategy. The Africa Climate-Smart Agriculture (ACSA) Programme (2018-2025) is aimed at increasing productivity and income, building resilience, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Netherlands: International commitments and the water-food nexus

But there is also a major role for the Dutch in this debate, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the Netherlands has agreed to international agreements that recognize the necessity of CSA. We signed the Paris Climate Agreement, and by this we recognize “[…] the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change” and vow to “[increase] the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change […]”. The Netherlands is also committed to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include poverty reduction (goal 1), ending hunger (goal 2), good health and well-being (goal 3), decent work and economic growth (goal 8), industry, innovation and infrastructure (goal 9), responsible production and consumption (goal 12). Indeed, all of the above are directly and positively impacted by good agricultural practices.

Moreover, the Dutch are world leaders in two themes central to the development of CSA: food production and water management. The scientific community has picked up on the large potential contribution of Dutch knowledge in these areas in further developing CSA. In November 2018, Wageningen University published a position paper in which they introduce a new research program aimed at “[contributing] to Zero Hunger by combining our interdisciplinary knowledge in the agri-food and water domains to shape the transitions towards sustainable food systems”. They refer to this as the water-food nexus.

Translating the nexus ideas into policy-making requires an inter-sectoral response involving a broad range of stakeholders – ministries, academia, civil society and the private sector. This is where the Netherlands has a clear added value: just as important as our expertise is our ability to bring together sources of innovative strength. This “Dutch Diamond” approach is known for delivering innovation.

Dutch government actors have shown a desire to address climate change and food security by fostering cooperation between the Dutch agri-food and water sectors. Also in November 2018, the Dutch Embassy in Jordan organized a successful scoping mission combining water and horticulture.

And it only makes sense for us, the Agricultural Department for West Africa, to also prioritize the water-food nexus in our activities for the coming years. We are currently in the process of organizing a water-food trade mission to Ghana, which will take place in the second half of 2019. We invite relevant partners and stakeholders to reach out to us!

E-mail: ACC-LNV@minbuza.nl