Relocated villagers from the Nam Theun 2 Hydroelectric Project , Credit Asian Development Bank

Can International Cooperation Stop Global Food Shortages?

Ed note. Welcome to The Takeaway, a regular feature in which  Alanna Shaikh unpacks the latest think tank and government reports on global development 

People have been predicting wars over water for the last two decades. And while we haven’t seen a shooting water break out over the issue of water alone, it’s clear that water issues are making other conflicts worse. The same is true of food security. Conflict and hunger, not surprisingly, go together. All of this is tied up with climate change, which is poised to reduce our access to fresh water and harm food crops. A new briefing from the Center for American Progress, “Supporting Global Food Security in a Changing Climate Through Transatlantic Cooperation,” takes on the interlinked issues of food and hunger in the Middle East and the security issues of climate change. The briefing draws on data about food, water, and climate change as well as on the results of a detailed simulation run by the center in November that looked at food, water, and conflict.

It’s a sobering document.

It leads with the statement that the “increasing urgency of food and climate security requires greater international cooperation and, more specifically, innovative and forward looking transatlantic policy responses to address these pressing issues,” and goes on to outline a world where “volatility is likely to be the new normal as climate change, demographic shifts, and other factors continue to reshape the global environment in the years and decades ahead.”

According to the report, by Michael Werz and Benjamin Pohl, countries that aim for food self-sufficiency risk disappointing their populaces and triggering disruptive anger when they face food shortages. “Keeping up the pretense of self-sufficiency is dangerous as it raises expectations that are difficult to fulfill and often lead to frustrations when governments fall short.” They also describe food self-sufficiency as inefficient – it doesn’t maximize the global food production capacity.

It goes on to make a difficult point about hydropower and good security. The economic benefits of using water for hydropower outweigh the value of water for irrigation and food production. Of course, as the briefer states, there is a powerful emotional value assigned to food. Violation of the emotional hierarchy of water uses may then have destabilizing potential: “Market forces will eventually rebalance the water use incentive structure, but potentially at great human cost…”

In addition, hydropower is actually in direct competition with food in many locations. The report describes the case of the Mekong Delta, where the eleven dams currently planned for construction will block 70% of commercial fish catch – in a region where people depend on fish for protein. The briefing finally goes on to state that “ongoing attempts to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius—or even 1.5 degrees Celsius—will soon require the repayment of significant carbon debts due to contemporary lifestyle and consumption choices in rich countries and emerging economies and a potentially huge expansion of bioenergy use, with its accompanying effects on agriculture.”

Relocated villagers from the Nam Theun 2 Hydroelectric Project , Credit Asian Development Bank
Relocated villagers from the Nam Theun 2 Hydroelectric Project , Credit Asian Development Bank

The Center for American Progress does have some recommendations for the complex, difficult situation it describes. It calls for close cooperation among the international community to improve food security. This includes dialogue between those who take a technocratic approach to food security (produce more and all will be resolved) – and those who take a rights-based approach (ensure that everyone has access to the food that already exists.) It calls for stronger linkages between the food security and climate, water, energy, trade, finance, and peacebuilding communities and for actors in the global food system to share more data with each other.

As a start, they call for the EU and the US to share data, and the assumptions and projections that go with that data. The briefing also calls for changes to foreign aid. Food aid from the US and food aid from the EU should be better coordinated. There should be a balance between humanitarian assistance and the kind of structural assistance that addresses development issues.

Finally, the report questions whether the current global governance systems is up to the challenge of facing these kinds of complex problems. It suggests that new institutions may be needed, with broad goals and trusted by many communities. In the shorter term, it suggests that the United States and the European Union consider how multilateral fora, such as the Group of 20, or G-20, “can be leveraged to nudge global governance towards a more holistic and systematic response to food insecurity.”

What the report doesn’t say

Much of this report is grounded solidly in practical thinking, but at times it seems to slide into wishful thinking. How, exactly, are we to develop new institutions that are capable of handling massive problems, wide enough to cover several sectors, and trusted all over the world?  The answer is left, unresolved.

One sentence takeaway

Hydropower, agriculture, and conflict have a complex, frightening relationship and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.