Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are geographically bounded and remotely located islands that face a raft of challenges to secure their food and nutrition security (FNS). The fragility of the SIDS comes to the fore in times of crises such as the current Covid-19 pandemic when tourism is stopped and expected remittances from workers in affected regions elsewhere do not arrive.

In the coming decades, SIDS’ resilience will be tested with climatic extremes impacting the availability of water for food production. Self-sufficiency in fresh and healthy foods is, therefore, widely advocated by international organizations and SIDS governments. Yet, the required timely delivery of fresh water for crop cultivation cannot be taken for granted.

On the contrary, the agricultural sector is in fierce competition with other water users, most of which are very vocal such as the rapidly growing urban population. Some others are silent such as the ecological flows that require water to preserve the scenic beauty and unique ecosystems of the islands. Furthermore, adequate treatment of returning flows from households, industry and agriculture is a crucial part of the water governance structure to avoid pollution of aquifers and coastal areas that can compromise human health and ecosystem quality.

This multitude of, often conflicting, interests calls for a well-informed water governance sector that secures an equitable and efficient allocation of water resources in the SIDS.

Profiling the SIDS

By profiling the SIDS, a better understanding of the numerous socio-economic and agricultural characteristics is obtained that constitute the nexus between freshwater and FNS. Most high-quality land on SIDS is under cultivation, an important share of which is occupied by monocultures of ‘cash crops’ inherited from colonial periods. Remoteness and low connectivity to trading routes explain the relatively high transport costs for the SIDS and the associated high prices of imported foods. Many SIDS have fragile economies, in terms of low income, high unemployment rates and low resilience after natural disasters. The fragility of the SIDS comes to the forefront in times of crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 when tourism was stopped and expected remittances from workers in affected regions elsewhere did not arrive. Moreover, the post-COVID-19 might induce a change in the international system to limit tax avoidance, which may lead to an exit of off-shore banks that never supported the SIDS in their development.

Yet, the same restrictions imposed by geographical boundaries also fosters SIDS’ inherent strength. Based on human activities, intensified, and energized by proximity and sense of island community, the unique island ecology creates a natural platform for cross-sectoral and ecosystem-oriented water management schemes. Moreover, the knowledge base of ecosystem custodians will support a transdisciplinary planning and community-based management of island resources that can synchronize production and ecological objectives.

It is found that few SIDS meet preferred food diversity standards and most islands suffer from micronutrient deficiencies with terrible consequences for health conditions; sadly, especially for the poorest. Hence, this emphasizes the importance of improving FNS conditions through appropriate water governance.

Follow the flows

Concerning renewable water resources, the highest shares from surface waters are obtained on the ‘high’ islands while ‘low’ and ‘mixed’ islands have larger groundwater reserves. The importance of ground and surface water for extraction widely varies among SIDS countries. There is some indication that on average SIDS are more reliant on surface water as compared with groundwater resources. However, the hazard of over-extraction and sea intrusion looms large as rapid urbanization exercises an increasing pressure on shallow groundwater reserves near the coastline.

Among the sectoral water competitors, agriculture figures as the largest water user except for high-income countries where municipalities lead, followed by industry. Yet, the share of cultivated land equipped for irrigation is very low in the SIDS, leaving ample room to expand agricultural areas.

Most low and middle-income SIDS are water stress-free. In Contrast, most high-income SIDS experience high water stress levels that will exacerbate towards 2030 and 2050 when the alarming state of ‘very severe water stresses will be reached.

Distressing are the findings on water quality in the SIDS, basically caused by two processes. First, low connectivity and limited sewer capacity for municipal and industrial wastewater combined with inadequate wastewater treatment procedures. Second, and equally alarming, is the high doses of pesticides currently applied to many of the SIDS which are affecting the quality of aquifers and surface waters as well as the priceless value of marine ecosystems and fishery grounds. The loud calls for strong regulations and enforcements to avoid water pollution and preserve the ecosystems should not go ignored.

Good access to drinking water and sanitation services are critical to the healthy development of children in the SIDS. Although this message does not need further clarification, it requires immediate action in the SIDS to ensure that WASH conditions are available to all.

A road map fostering SIDS strengths in agricultural water management

Policies that improve the use of fresh water resources should, in the first place, aim at strengthening the water governance on the islands, but, subsequently, also consider its embedding in the island’s society, economy and ecology. SIDS are by nature small, dependent, and fragile, and to make their water development processes successful, they should also vigorously attempt to identify, create and nurture their strengths. Indeed, islanders can turn the boundedness of their geography into a golden opportunity by capitalizing on proximity of all actors involved including a rich traditional knowledge base of ecosystem custodians that, jointly, should foster durable solutions for freshwater supply.

A roadmap for improving water governance

The following roadmap indicates seven steps to preserve the functionality of fresh water resources to ensure FNS.

  1. Gaining efficiencies: Increasing efficiencies on water conveyance and water use is essential. Matching rainfed agriculture with additional irrigation expands the possibility for stable multiple cropping schemes per year.
  2. Water acts: The impact of preserving colonial water acts on water allocations should be investigated and be the basis for rescheduling and redistribution of these rights.
  3. Monitoring, data management and modelling: There is a dire need to expand and harmonize the collected data and use them as input into analytical frameworks that can inform decision-makers on addressing pending issues but also on the impact of prospective scenarios on future water demanding developments.
  4. Control and enforcement: Control and enforcement jointly with awareness programs should prevent free-rider behaviour of individual water users. Regulations on water use should be unequivocal, substantiated with empirical evidence and well communicated to involved water users.
  5. Institutional collaboration: The overall perspective is that the institutional collaboration on SIDS is weak, leaving much scope for evidence-based policymaking and enhanced cooperation between government institutes, NGO’s and water users.  A transdisciplinary approach seems, therefore, desirable to broaden the decision-making process: first to consult and identify prevailing problems, next to provide feedback and in the end to sustain the intervention in its post-project period.
  6. Inter-island collaboration: An active exchange between the islands on successful interventions and policies as well as lessons learned from past initiatives should compensate for the lack of scale that each of the SIDS faces. The South-South Cooperation of the FAO could take a leading role in this inter-island initiative.
  7. Water quality: The small islands do not offer an escape way for the waste water produced at households and industry nor from polluted water flows from agricultural activities. Management of waste- and polluted water should have the highest priority to secure the health and prevent the destruction of ecological assets on the islands.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors Amani Alfarra (FAO), Ben Sonneveld (VU University Amsterdam) and Robert Brears (Our Future Water). This article has been published on The Green Growth Knowledge before.

Photo credit: website UNWTO