The Essential Ingredient: Water’s Role in Nutrition


Food is the fuel that powers children, adults, and societies. But food itself is not enough—nutritious food makes all the difference. 

“There is no question that nutrition is funda­mental to a nation’s health, educational, and eco­nomic development,” said USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah for the Global Child Nutrition Dinner in March 2013. Indeed, the impact of nutrition on individuals and societies is tremendous. People who are undernourished receive less education and earn less income. Countries with undernourished citizens struggle to thrive.

A nutritious diet is a diet that provides the energy, protein, and micronutrients needed to advance the growth of children and the lives of adults. The World Health Organization recommends an increased intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts to be well nourished—all things that can be grown in even the poorest countries with the right technical assistance.

Chronic undernutrition robs 165 million children of opportunities for advancement and contributes to 2.6 million child deaths per year.

Many of the root causes of undernutrition are water-related. Water is necessary to grow the fruits, vegetables, and grains that fuel societies. And water sustains the livestock that produce the milk that strengthens bones and the meat that builds muscles.  Growing one kilogram of wheat requires 1,500 liters of water and producing one kilogram of beef requires 15,000 liters of water. Ensuring that farmers have the water to produce the food that drives societies is an urgent issue. USAID sponsors a number of programs around the world to help farmers make better use of their water so they can efficiently produce the right balance of food to nourish billions.

Plentiful water supply is not enough, though—there also has to be safe water for drinking. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are the key to preventing waterborne diseases like diarrhea, which is the second leading cause of child death and a leading cause of undernutrition in children under 5. When children suffer from diarrheal disease, they are unable to absorb essential nutrients, regardless of the food they eat. For decades, USAID has been working around the world to provide improved sources of water and sanitation and to educate people about hygiene.

Because of the breadth of issues contributing to undernutrition, partnerships can be a power­ful way to eradicate it.  USAID has, in support of the President’s Feed the Future and Global Health Initiatives, joined forces with over 100 partners including governments, donors, civil society, businesses, and researchers to improve the nutrition of millions through the global Scal­ing Up Nutrition Movement, or SUN. Water and Sanitation are among SUN's top priorities, and it has worked with the Governments of Guatemala, Nepal, Ethiopia, Kenya, and other countries to better target WASH issues in order to improve nutrition.

SUN pays particular attention to child nutrition, especially the 1,000-day window between the start of a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday. When children are undernourished during this critical window, stunting—irreversible damage to a child’s brain and body—can occur. Globally, about one quarter of children under 5 years old are stunted.

The U.S.  Government’s global food and health initiatives, coupled with coordinated international efforts like SUN, are already increasing nutrition and reducing stunting. By 2015, undernutrition will be slashed by 20 percent in 18 priority Feed the Future and Global Health Initiative countries due to U.S. Government nutrition programs. Good news for fathers, mothers, children, and societies – and their futures. 

C.  Zeilberger

More Information

Scaling Up Nutrition

Feed the Future

Global Health Initiative