In the past, the topic of food security was discussed primarily in the Millennium Development Goals with a directed focus on populations across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia (1). However, as the effects of human-induced climate change have become more apparent in the Arctic within the last few decades, communities in the north have felt the pressure of food insecurity. Traditional subsistence hunting methods have become increasingly unviable -- disappearing ice, unpredictable hunting seasons, further endangered wildlife being the most common examples of escalating vulnerability. Although this quick-shifting dynamic has called for serious regional and international attention, it has received little in the way of actually implementing long-term solutions to build a food secure environment and in curbing the causal mechanisms of food insecurity in the region.
Food security is defined as “existing when all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life (2).” Food security is not only a necessary component for human security, but is essential to the long term sustainability of economic success, political stability, healthy social relationships, and cultural integrity in communities. The lack of such security in the Arctic presents an onerous challenge mainly to indigenous peoples (3). In an article written in a journal produced by Yale University, an indigenous Nunavut explained, “We’ve always been able to adapt to natural change in the environment, but what’s happening up here now is not natural (4).” Indigenous populations in the Arctic remain deeply connected to the land, evident in the wide varieties of traditions, practices and knowledge passed down generations for thousands of years (3). With the human-induced acceleration of changes in the environment, these historically resilient communities find it impossible to adapt at the same rate.
As traditional subsistence means of acquiring food have become increasingly unfeasible and dangerous, Arctic families have had no choice but to turn to retailers for food. However, because of a combination of shipping costs and a lack of competition, retail prices are highly unaffordable. According to the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics, Nunavummiut pay between twice and three times as much on store-bought food than the rest of Canada. A regular five pound bag of flour costs $14.00 (5). Unfortunately, many indigenous communities in the Arctic are low-income and cannot expend money on such highly priced food. The combination of receding natural resources, low income households, and expensive food in stores has all but ensured the Arctic food crisis for many.
The effects of food insecurity on health are of particular concern for many in the Arctic. Nutritional deficiencies in food sources can contribute to serious health problems such as developmental irregularities and heavily weakened immune systems, particularly in children. Researchers from the Inuit Health Survey found that 70% of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure households while the Nunavut suffer from a rate of food insecurity four times higher than the average household in Canada. Impeded growth and developmental problems have plagued these communities. The same report, which drew upon previous yearly assessments, concluded that households relying on government benefits as their primary source of income were over three times as likely to be food-insecure households (6).
To ameliorate the dismal availability and lack of reliability of food sources, social programs have been constructed and government subsidies granted towards retail food acquisition. For example, a $60 million Canadian federal program named Nutrition North subsidizes perishable nutritious food products in the Arctic. This retail subsidy is necessary for low-income families to access affordable, healthy food (7). However, a multiplicity of local reports have accused northern retailers of taking advantage of the lack of competition for food in isolated communities by exaggerating the price of shipping and keeping inflated prices. These reports have pointed to the pay-the-retailer model for federally subsidized food programs to be inherently flawed in a region where there is an absence of competition for food retailers (8). As a result, Arctic communities still face high prices. This past year, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a platform that promised to reform the Nutrition North program to abate this exact problem and to invest significantly to ensure a program that is more transparent and accountable to the Arctic community (8). If subsidizing retail food is the answer, then substantial financial commitments and robust expansion will be needed to address the reality of prevailing food insecurity.
Aside from government subsidies, there are other avenues in which food security may be addressed. In an effort of creativity and innovative strategy, there have been proposals this year to copy Greenland’s relatively successful commercialization of country food (9). Country food refers to the Inuit description for traditional foods such as arctic seal, whale, and caribou -- all foods which were originally meant for consumption on a day-to-day survival basis. Proponents for this idea cite an economic opportunity for hunters to be lifted out of poverty while providing increased access to country food for others. However, the commercialization of a waning food source that is increasingly costly and hazardous to obtain is unlikely to be a sustainable, long term answer to the problem.
In addition to national responses by each of the Arctic states, there needs to be a collective regional response that includes all stakeholders that utilizes established avenues of collaboration, such as the Arctic Council. The composition of such a plan must also work towards the long-term goals of building infrastructures for sustainable resource acquisition, managing effective food programs, and addressing low-income households by supporting job training and educational opportunities. Most importantly, any comprehensive solution to attaining a food secure Arctic must prioritize the empowerment of local communities and respect the rights of indigenous peoples.
(1) United Nations. “United Nations Millennium Development Goals.” Accessed June 24, 2016. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/bkgd.shtml
(2) United Nations. “Water and Food Security | International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life’ 2005-2015.” Accessed June 23, 2016. http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/food_security.shtml.
(3) Arctic Center, University of Lapland.“Arctic Indigenous Peoples - Arctic Centre, University of Lapland.” Accessed June 24, 2016. http://www.arcticcentre.org/EN/communications/arcticregion/Arctic-Indigenous-Peoples
(4) Arctic Deeply. “Ice Melt Increases Indigenous Food Insecurity.” Accessed June 23, 2016. https://www.newsdeeply.com/arctic/articles/2016/04/01/ice-melt-increases-indigenous-food-insecurity.
(5) 2015 Nunavut Food Price Survey. Oct. 2015. Nunavut Bureau of Statistics. Accessed June 23, 2016. http://www.stats.gov.nu.ca/Publications/Historical/Prices/FoodPriceSurveyStatsUpdate,2015.pdf
(6) Statistics Canada. Food Insecurity in Canada. Mar. 2015. Accessed June 23, 2016. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/82-624-x/2015001/article/14138-eng.pdf
(7) Canada, Government of Canada; Indigenous and Northern Affairs. “Nutrition North Canada.” November 7, 2014. http://www.nutritionnorthcanada.gc.ca/eng/1415385762263/1415385790537.
(8) “Arctic Food Subsidy Still a Problem, Says Researcher | Canadian Grocer.” Accessed June 24, 2016. http://www.canadiangrocer.com/top-stories/arctic-food-subsidy-still-a-problem-says-researcher-60485.
(9) Ford, James D., Joanna Petrasek Macdonald, Catherine Huet, Sara Statham, and Allison MacRury. “Food Policy in the Canadian North: Is There a Role for Country Food Markets?” Social Science & Medicine 152 (March 2016): 35–40. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.01.034.
Image: © Fredericfaure | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-tied-sled-dogs-kummiut-eskimo-village-east-coast-greenland-winter-artic-circle-image32739132#res14972580">Tied sled dogs in the Kummiut eskimo village.</a>
Starting on May 24th, a three-day meeting for the High Level Roundtable on Water Security took place in Yangon, Myanmar. The talks — which received wide support from various UN agencies, regional development partners, and leaders within civil society — supplemented initiatives put forth by the Global Water Partnership (GWP), a worldwide intergovernmental network focused on creating a water-secure world built on responsible water management and sustainable government practices.
The United Nations has emphasized the issue of water security as crucial in ameliorating high poverty levels, overturning systemic violence, addressing human rights inequities, mitigating and adapting to climate change, improving agricultural and manufacturing practices, and providing for sustainable energy production — all of which, because of Myanmar’s tumultuous past, are somewhat overdue and yet, due to Myanmar’s new democratic posturing, now provide the country with the opportunity to lead in efforts to address a multitude of issues (1).
The objectives laid out at the High Level Roundtable focus on three key areas: reimagining Myanmar’s current approach with regional objectives for water security in South Asia, integrating the Sustainable Development Goals of UN Agenda 2030, and furthering cooperation with regional partners undergoing similar challenges (2). In particular, the Global Water Partnership highlights the importance of supporting the new democratic government of Myanmar in achieving water resource development. The new government has a ways to go in repairing its predecessor’s damage to water security and achieving sustainable development: As GWP member and Secretary of the Myanmar Water Think Tank Dr. Khin Ni Ni Thein stated, “The High Level Round Table meeting seeks to identify possible challenges to address the inherited impacts from past governments on the water sector. This High Level event would bridge the past with the present as well as help building a meaningful work plan for the future not only for Myanmar but also for the ASEAN members (3).”
Myanmar is at a crucial juncture where its increasing population and developing economy are looking progressively towards water resources in order to support growth. In the IMF’s latest annual assessment, Myanmar was listed as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia; although economic advancements remain steady, the country must creatively close gaps of vulnerability in areas of industrial infrastructure and confidently press forward with further development of resource structures (4). According to the Water Environment Partnership in Asia (WEPA), 90% of Myanmar’s current water consumption goes towards agriculture while the remaining 10% is allocated for industry and domestic use. Even so, Myanmar is only utilizing 5% of potential water resource usage, indicating a vast possibility for consequential water resource development through capacity building and thoughtful governance — both of which international, regional, and civil society actors are willing to provide guidance on (5).
Although Myanmar has an abundance of water resources, the upwards pressure of surface water utilization and groundwater extraction to provide for its demand have created an overwhelming environment for the new democracy. Any approach to ensure the future of Myanmar’s water security and overall sustainability as a country calls for thoughtful, holistic planning and careful implementation based on strong transboundary collaboration with international bodies and regional organizations that hold the same water security interests as Myanmar. This multi-stakeholder approach to the sustainable development of Myanmar’s water infrastructure will largely impact other dimensions, some of which are more obvious — such as food security, biodiversity, health and sanitation, energy production, employment, poverty — and others which are more discreetly related such as education, ethnic conflict, and gender equality. Overall development requires an interdisciplinary understanding — a message reiterated by the Ministerial Declaration at the Third World Water Forum (WWF3), which stated that “water is a driving force for sustainable development including environmental integrity, and the eradication of poverty and hunger, indispensable for human health and welfare.”
Myanmar exemplifies how water security underpins all security. Poverty and lack of access to resources are particularly critical issues for the civilian population of Myanmar. According to the UN Development Program, almost a third of Myanmar’s population lives below the poverty level, primarily in rural areas and communities that have been historically embroiled in ethnic conflict. These same communities suffer from unsafe drinking water and lack of sanitation facilities while access to electricity is afforded to only a third of the people of Myanmar (6). In addition to this, Myanmar finds itself especially vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, wet periods, and droughts according to the latest Environmental Vulnerability Index (7). These exigencies are both caused by and are the causal forces behind water insecurity. As such, these vulnerabilities must be met with resilience in order to allay the risks faced by the rural poor and other groups whose fragility has been externally induced by their environment, most notably women and children.
With a fast-growing economy that is projected to become increasingly dependent on water resources, it is vital to address the insufficiencies of current infrastructure so as not to hinder Myanmar’s progress towards responsible water management and overall resilience to vulnerabilities; it is important to meet the processes of economic growth, urbanization, and development with prudence. Such future-focused, integrative approaches to water security are imperative for developing robust environments, healthy social systems, and productive economies.
The high level talks were vital in articulating a broader vision for water security across the world, and as Myanmar takes its next steps forward in realizing this long-term goal for itself, many states will be in close observance — particularly neighboring South Asian states who face similar conditions and challenges to sustainable development.
(1) UN-Water. (2014) UN-Water: Water Security. Available at: http://www.unwater.org/topics/water-security/en/. (Accessed June 14, 2016).
(2) United Nations. (2015) Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development : Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. Available at: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld. (Accessed June 14, 2016).
(3) Global Water Partnership. (2016) High Level Round Table on Water Security and the Sustainable Development Goals. Available at: http://www.gwp.org/Global/Events/Myanmar/Concept%20Note%20and%20Agenda_High%20Level%20Roundtable%20event_Myanmar.pdf (Accessed June 15, 2016).
(4) International Monetary Fund. (2015) IMF Survey : Myanmar’s Growth Momentum Strong, but Maintaining Stability Is Key. Available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/survey/so/2015/car091815a.htm. (Accessed June 14, 2016).
(5) Water Environment Partnership in Asia. (2003-2004) State of Water : Myanmar. Available at: http://www.wepa-db.net/policies/state/myanmar/myanmar.htm. (Accessed June 15, 2016).
(6) United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 2014. (2014) About Myanmar. Available at: http://www.mm.undp.org/content/myanmar/en/home/countryinfo.html. (Accessed June 15, 2016).
(7) South Pacific Applied Geoscience Committee, United Nations Environment Program. (2005) Environmental Vulnerability Index: Myanmar. Available at: http://gsd.spc.int/index.php/environmental-vulnerability-index. (Accessed June 15, 2016).
Image: © Noppakun | Dreamstime.com - <a href="http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-boat-inle-lake-shan-state-myanmar-traditional-image40276389#res14972580">Boat in inle lake, Shan state, Myanmar</a>