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Report, 2021

Water productivity, the yield gap, and nutrition : the case of Ethiopia

Lundqvist, Jan; Malmquist, Louise; Dias, Paulo; Barron, Jennie; Wakeyo, Mekonnen B.


With less than a decade to go, the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals on water, nutrition and food security is currently off-track. To address the mounting problems of water scarcity and malnutrition, we need a strategy to assist farmers to produce staples for basic food security while, at the same time, increasing the production of high-value and nutrient-dense crops.

This report investigates the relationship between water and nutrition using data from Ethiopia on yield, water productivity, and the macro and micronutrient contents of foods. Ethiopia is challenged by erratic rainfall and dry spells. With limited capacity to cope with risks, smallholder farmers concentrate on staple crops, chiefly maize, teff, pulses and oilseeds. Low yields, low water productivity, and a lack of diversification of cropping patterns have had severe consequences for food security and nutrition.

The report uses a nutritional water productivity (NWP) framework to interpret the relationship between nutrition and water in the context of water challenges. It argues that higher yields – of both staple and nutritious crops – are possible, even in waterstressed areas. This will require an agricultural transformation that ensures that efforts to enhance water productivity are linked to the promotion of healthy diets. Increasing water productivity and stabilizing yields at realistic levels will also be crucial to increasing the resilience of farmers. Better coordination and timing of water and other inputs, notably fertilizers and improved seeds, is likely to enhance productivity and to reduce the threats of a further encroachment of agriculture into other ecosystems. A diversified production system is required for food security, nutrition and poverty alleviation. There is an opportunity to provide strategic support for crops and other farm produce with high economic and nutritional value. A range of crops and other produce can be included in farming systems ranging from rainfed to irrigated agriculture. For the farmers to be stimulated and able to capitalize on the increasing need and demand for such produce, the development of markets, and associated investments in cold storage, roads/transport and food procurement programmes that prioritize nutritious produce will be key.

Published in

Land and water discussion paper
2021, number: 17
eISBN: 978-92-5-134145-2
Publisher: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations