This is a previous project site under CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE). For more information and current updates, visit the WLE website.

Home > Research Topics > Water and Poverty

Water and Poverty


Poverty is not necessarily linked to water availability; in most instances, poverty is actually linked to the level of control over water resources






A stated objective of CPWF was to “maintain the level of global diversions of water to agriculture at the level of the year 2000, while increasing food production, to achieve internationally adopted targets for decreasing malnourishment and rural poverty.” From the beginning, reducing poverty was an important aim of the CPWF. The program’s contribution was to be through improvements in food security, nutrition, and livelihoods through better management of and access to water.

We understand “poverty” to mean “a pronounced deprivation in well-being”. It includes the concept of social exclusion: how discrimination affects the poor and their capacity to influence decisions.  We found that poverty can be measured in many ways, including income or expenditure flows or asset stocks, or in terms of how well people meet livelihood goals. People-centered perspectives allowed us to explore causes of poverty including factors of human agency, empowerment, and institutional accountability.

Initially, we explored “water poverty” (water-specific forms of poverty such as water hazards or lack of development of water resources). The implicit assumption was that the poor were also “water poor”. However, we learned that that the incidence of poverty and the availability of water are not necessarily linked and that the severity of poverty depends on the level of control over water, rather than on the endowment.

Development trajectories and institutions

Our Basin Focal Projects found that poverty is largely dependent on the stage of development of a basin’s economy, where “stage of development” is measured by per capita rural GDP and the contribution of agriculture to GDP.

Rural poverty is high in “less developed basins” where agriculture contributes most to economic output. In these basins, poverty was related to the absence of basic services such as safe water, sanitation, health care, education, finance, markets, or farming inputs. In “transitional basins”, pressure on resources increases and both scarcity of and access to water are issues. In “more developed” basins, many deficiencies are corrected, but some sectors of the populations are left behind in relative poverty. Benefits from growth do not trickle down to the whole population.

Basins with high rural poverty were found to be characterized by greater use of natural capital than physical capital, and by a greater reliance on local, informal institutions rather than on formal state water resources institutions. Basins with lower levels of rural poverty still had pockets of poverty within rapidly-changing societies.

This pattern of economic evolution parallels a general movement from informal to formal governance structures. Therefore, formal policy interventions are less effective in less-developed basins. Similarly, as incomes increase there are more livelihood opportunities, which blurs the relationship between water and poverty. When economies develop, we see a weakening of the link between the provision of natural resources and livelihood outcomes.

In all basins, water scarcity often had institutional rather than physical causes, but the relevant institutions differed with the basin’s place on the development trajectory. In agricultural basins, the dominant institutions are local and traditional, and state institutions are relatively weak. In contrast, in transitional and industrial basins, state institutions dominate. In these basins, rural poverty is concentrated in specific areas that remain poor due to many causes that can only weakly be addressed through technical increases in water productivity. In contrast, in agricultural basins, technical improvement of water productivity can have a substantial impact on poverty.

Interventions that give only modest increases in productivity, together with reduced variability, may be enough to allow poor farmers in agricultural basins to accumulate assets and diversify incomes, often outside of water and agriculture. Increased financial and human capital can permit diversification and increase resilience.

After having observed that poverty is more dependent on the stage of development of the country’s or basin’s economy, CPWF reoriented its approach toward addressing specific development issues or challenges in basins.


Water, Food and Poverty in River Basins: Defining the Limits (Book)

Conventional wisdom says that the world is heading for a major water crisis. The findings from this book present a different picture. While it is convenient to visualize an inevitable global water and food crisis in which increasing demands result in increasing poverty, food insecurity and conflict, the reality is far more nuanced and revolves around the politics of equitable and sustainable development of resources.

Read More



Major River Basins Have Enough Water to Sustainably Double Food Production in the Coming Decades (Press Release)

While water-related conflicts and shortages abound throughout the rapidly changing societies of Africa, Asia and Latin America, there is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial and environmental needs during the 21st century. The report from the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) of the CGIAR finds that the “sleeping giant” of water challenges is not scarcity, but the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of the massive amounts of water that flow through the breadbaskets of key river basins.

Read More



Water International Special Issue 1 (Journal)

The first of two special journal issues, this issue of Water International introduces CPWF’s Basin Focal Project. Subsequent chapters break down results and findings from ten major river basins.

Read More



Water International Special Issue 2 (Journal)

The second of two special journal issues, this issue of Water International provides a cross-basin analysis and synthesis of Basin Focal Project results. It includes topics such as water, food and poverty, as well as the resilience of big river basins.

Read More



Water, food and livelihoods in river basins (Journal article)

This journal article, winner of the 2009 Water International ‘Best Paper Award’, explores conflict demands for water in river basins. It argues that the response of both agricultural and non-agricultural systems to increased pressure will affect livelihoods.

Read More




Simon Cook on the Basin Focal Research Project (Video)

Dr. Simon Cook, leader of the Basin Focal Research Project from 2007-2010, discusses some of the key findings from the research project, which focused on understanding the linkages between water, food, and development in 10 river basins.

Read More



The Global Water and Food Crisis (Presentation)

Behind every crisis is a situation. This presentation unpacks the components of water crises around the world.

Read More



The Basin Focal Projects of the CPWF—an Interesting Journey (Presentation)

A keynote speech to the 2nd International Forum on Water and Food, this presentation details the research that brought forth a new way of thinking about water and it’s relationship to food production and poverty.

Read More



World Has 'Enough Water' for Future Food Needs (SciDev news coverage)

The key problem for water use is not scarcity but inefficient use of supplies because of poor governance and regulation concludes a study by CPWF.

Read More




Rural poverty and Food insecurity mapping at district level for improved agricultural water management in the Limpopo River Basin (Working paper)

This paper identifies areas in the Limpopo River basin with high levels of rural poverty and food insecurity; identifies areas where Agricultural Water Management interventions are taking place; and based on this information assess whether CPWF activities are located in areas of need.

Read More



Water Evaluation and Planning system (WEAP)

Allocation of limited water resources between agricultural, municipal and environmental uses requires the full integration of supply, demand, water quality and ecological considerations. WEAP aims to incorporate these issues into a practical yet robust tool for integrated water resources planning. CPWF applied this tool to its work in the Andes.

Read More



How water and Agriculture Support Livelihoods in the Volta (Policy Brief)

Lack of access to potable water is a recognized cause of poverty, with its important relation to health and manpower. The proportion of households using poor quality water is close to 50 per cent in both Ghana and Burkina Faso. Less than 10 per cent of the average total rainfall ends up in the river, making river discharge, and those who depend on it, highly sensitive to variations in annual rainfall.

Read More




  • Cook, S., M. Fisher, T. Tiemann, and A. Vidal. 2011.
  • Cook, SE, MJ Fisher, L. Harrington, A Huber-Lee, and A Vidal. 2009.
  • Fisher, M., S. Cook, T. Tiemann, and J.E. Nickum. 2011.
  • Kemp-Benedict, E., S. Cook, S.L. Allen, S. Vosti, J. Lemoalle, M. Giordano, J. Ward, and D. Kaczan. 2011.
  • Sullivan, A., and L.M. Sibanda. 2010.
  • Vidal, A., L. Harrington, and M. Fisher. 2014 (in press).
  • Invalid URL