The World’s Water Crises Are Already Hitting Food Production

We need a Blue Revolution or millions will go hungry, says Richard Whelan.

We have seen in Ireland recently how quickly a shortage of water can develop. To us this is a short-term problem. However to many other countries, particularly in Asia, water shortage is already a major long-term issue. This water crisis is increasingly being focused on by the UN, various think tanks, and commercial bodies, but is not yet widely understood by the general public.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies hosted a roundtable last year on “How States React To Water Stress” and organised a committee meeting during its annual conference on Water Security and Geopolitics, which I participated in. The consultancy firm McKinsey has predicted a serious shortfall of fresh water by 2030 unless drastic action is urgently taken, a view shared by the World Resources Institute, a Washington think tank. Today more than half of Chinese citizens are without access to quality drinking water. All this has led Mike Walsh, executive vice-president of Chicago Climate Exchange, the carbon trading market, to say that it is only a matter of time before water rights are traded just like carbon and oil are today.

The world faces two water crises at present. The first is contaminated and polluted waters, and that can be fixed, with some effort. The second, the supply of water, is a critical issue and one that most people have not faced up to.

On the supply side, the key issue, there is adequate water worldwide for all our needs. However it is in the wrong place and occurs at the wrong time. Transport costs for water currently make it prohibitive to transfer the water surpluses to the areas of deficit. Water available at the wrong season can frequently not be stored until it is needed, particularly for agricultural needs in the spring and summer. It is estimated that by 2015 , approximately three billion people will be without adequate clean water.

This is not just a future problem. Asia is already badly hit by a shortage of adequate clean water . In northern China water table levels have been falling for many years . Currently 300 cities in China are on water rationing. In India water table levels have also been decreasing consistently – currently at a rate of approximately one metre per annum. In China the reduction in water availability has led to a reduction in arable land, leading to food being imported into a country of almost 10 million square km..

Overall in Asia it is expected that in the near term there will be serious food crises, resulting in huge social unrest. This comes on top of significant social unrest in China .

What is creating this problem?

The simple answer is wasteful agricultural usage of water.

Of all the river water used, two thirds goes for agricultural use to grow food. As a very vivid explanation of this, it takes 4,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk. The Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, which helped feed the growing world population, led to a massive increase in water usage for agricultural purposes. The outcome is particularly dramatically seen in India and China where the increase in food production eventually lead to a massive decrease in water availability. This is going to lead to a “water crash”, particularly in Asia. To re-emphasise the point China cannot feed itself today, simply because of this water shortage.

What is to be done?

Blue Revolution in water usage to follow on from the Green Revolution in food is required. We should expect that technological developments, particularly if focused on this area, will help. We should not make the Malthusian assumption that disaster is likely because of current trends, ignoring the impact of remedial action and technological developments.

One possible solution is water desalination. The cost is prohibitive at present, but this could change with positive implications.

The most important solution however, tying in to the most important source of the problem, is change in agriculture and water usage. This must be faced up to before the problem will be addressed. Technology can certainly help in this area, with ideas such as drip irrigation quite important. Overall the true cost of agricultural use of water must be clearly known and understood before the next steps become clear.

Perhaps the single most important first step the world can make today is to put a real price on water reflecting its true value to help make its usage much more efficient. Doing so would lead to massive changes in how we produce food, energy, and how a considerable amount of manufacturing is physically carried out . This may sound rather dramatic, but until people know the true, full cost to them, their countries, and the world of water usage it will never be used in an efficient fashion.

Fiscal policies in general, and taxation policies in particular, should be targeted to produce long term positive outcomes. We in Ireland should face up to pricing and paying for water now, and in seeing our water resources, if we are prepared to revolutionise how we use them, as a great asset for future generations. Investing in that asset now would help offset the massive liabilities we are passing on to future generations from our currrent Great Recession.

A recent article in the Economist (When the Rains Fail) pointed to the need for governmental action. “Some excuse this resolute destruction [ current agricultural practices which waste water] by saying that India’s farmers do not understand groundwater. But they know when it is running out, as an impromptu conclave in the Punjabi village of Lubana Teku showed. “Punjab will become a desert, like Rajasthan ,” said Jarnail Sigh , a stately orange -turbaned grower of rice. When Mr. Singh began pumping groundwater in 1973, turning his 14 acres from cotton to paddy, it took a 3 hp engine to bring it up from 1.5 metres.Now the groundwater is 20 metres down, and he requires a 15 -horsepower pump to sluice his green paddy -fields. “We know the water is going,” said Mr. Singh. ” But we are not going to change our ways unless the government makes us .”[ The Economist, September 12, 2009].

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