Water and food – Africa in a global context

Beyond the obvious truism that without water there cannot be any food production, the more complex relation between water and food has not yet been explored in depth in a comparative perspective. Food systems and modes of production have been integral to social theories ranging from the development of complex societies to Marxism and later functional and structural approaches.

Researcher: Terje Oestigaard
Project initiated in 2014

In most of these analyses the role of water and the different and changing water-worlds have been omitted. In a water-systems perspective one may address these complex interdependencies in a non-reductionist way while at the same time emphasizing the possibilities and limitations favoring certain types of food production in a given eco-system at a given time. The seasonal variations of water – annual rains or floods, the absence or presence of which types of water at what time – are physical premises for food productions at any place. However, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for food productions where societal, cultural and religious premises also structure what is grown and produced, and equally important – what is eaten in a community. Different food systems are intrinsically interwoven into the social matrix of any society. Societal development in the past was not merely a matter of surplus production for exchange or trade enabling elites, but the very modes of production and types of food produced enabled distinctive but not reductionist developments trajectories in history. A nomad society in semi-arid regions or deserts was obviously structured in different ways than irrigation states, where the different water-worlds were the main source of food and agricultural production. The mere fact that each and every one in any society at any time need daily food, highlights the role and importance of studying water and food systems in history – from an individual level to state levels.

Throughout history, too much or too little water for food production at the right time for cultivation has been a matter of plenty or famine, and life or death, whether these changes have been caused by natural or human made climate change or due to increasing populations. Today, it is generally acknowledged that it is water and not land which will be a major hindrance to feeding the growing population. 20% of the world’s agricultural land is irrigated, but it provides about 40% of the world’s food. The potential for new irrigated land is, however, limited, and future agrarian expansion and intensive food production will to a large extent take place in areas dependent upon rainfed agriculture, which is vulnerable to seasonal and erratic weather fluctuations.

Given the specific character of water and climate systems together with the fact that more and more of agricultural production is part of the global market in one way or another, most food production and food systems are part of global processes to various extents. Africa is today the continent with the highest levels of poverty and also increasing hunger despite reduction on other continents while at the same time the population is expected to double by 2050. Increased food production is therefore of utmost importance for Africa’s future, but these concerns are also shared by most nations in the global world. Consequently, other countries and companies invest in African land and water for food and energy for their own national consumption while at the same time solutions sought to increase food production globally may also have particular relevance for Africa’s agriculture.

Understanding water and food in Africa in a historic and comparative context may thus enable new insights into the evolution of food systems from the early humans to today challenges in the global world. Different food systems in varying and changing ecosystems from deserts to tropical rainforests have enabled certain adaptations and technological innovations at different points in history. These non-reductionist utilisations but adaptive innovations and developments have been integral to specific societal organisations, but these social structures have also taken different forms in different ecological zones based on the same food production. Moreover, for millennia African food production has been interlinked with the wider world and many of today’s species and staples are not indigenous. A comparative focus on water and food systems is therefore also an approach to understanding global processes with continuity today on different but highly relevant premises for Africa’s future and food production. Water and food in Africa in a comparative perspective is therefore a key to understanding local and global processes of food production in history.

This project resulted in an edited volume by Terje Tvedt & Terje Oestigaard in the series A History of Water, published by I.B. Tauris in 2015.

Food production
Terje Oestigaard
Water resources
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