[Vision2020] Fwd: Earth Policy News - Water Scarcity Crossing National Borders

Tom Trail ttrail at moscow.com
Wed Sep 27 10:34:23 PDT 2006


With the Palouse Water Summitt coming up on the 3rd of October, I thought
a world perspective on water scarcity would provide some interesting background
on a macro level.  The following summary of an upcoming book by Lester R.
Brown targets this important subject.

Tom Trail

>X-pstn-settings: 5 (2.0000:2.0000) s gt3 gt2 gt1 r p m c
>X-pstn-addresses: from <Earthpolicynews at earth-policy.org> [db-null]
>Plan B 2.0 Book Byte 2006-11
>For Immediate Release
>September 27, 2006
>Lester R. Brown
>Historically, water scarcity was a local issue. 
>It was up to national governments to balance 
>water supply and demand. Now this is changing as 
>scarcity crosses national boundaries via the 
>international grain trade. Since it takes 1,000 
>tons of water to produce one ton of grain, 
>importing grain is the most efficient way to 
>import water. Countries are, in effect, using 
>grain to balance their water books. Similarly, 
>trading in grain futures is in a sense trading 
>in water futures.
>Falling water tables are already adversely 
>affecting harvests in some countries, including 
>China, the world’s largest grain producer. 
>Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow 
>aquifer under the North China Plain, forcing 
>farmers to turn to the region’s deep fossil 
>aquifer, which is not replenishable. Wheat 
>farmers in some areas of the Plain are now 
>pumping from a depth of 300 meters, or nearly 
>1,000 feet.
>Overall, China’s grain production has fallen 
>from its historical peak of 392 million tons in 
>1998 to an estimated 358 million tons in 2005. 
>This drop of 34 million tons exceeds the 
>Canadian wheat harvest. China largely covered 
>the drop-off in production by drawing down its 
>once vast stocks until 2004, at which point it 
>imported 7 million tons of grain.
>Water shortages are even more serious in India 
>simply because the margin between actual food 
>consumption and survival is so precarious. At 
>this point, the harvests of wheat and rice, 
>India’s principal food grains, are still 
>increasing. But within the next few years, the 
>loss of irrigation water could override 
>technological progress and start shrinking the 
>harvest in some parts of the country, as it is 
>already doing in China.
>After China and India, there is a second tier of 
>countries with large water deficits—Algeria, 
>Egypt, Iran, Mexico, and Pakistan. Three of 
>these—Algeria, Egypt, and Mexico—already import 
>much of their grain. However, in a parallel move 
>with China, water-short Pakistan abruptly turned 
>to the world market in 2004 for imports of 1.5 
>million tons of wheat. Its need for imports is 
>likely to climb in the years ahead.
>The Middle East and North Africa—from Morocco in 
>the west through Iran in the east—has become the 
>world’s fastest-growing grain import market. The 
>demand for grain is driven both by rapid 
>population growth and by rising affluence, much 
>of the latter derived from the export of oil. 
>With virtually every country in the region 
>pressing against its water limits, the growing 
>urban demand for water can be satisfied only by 
>taking irrigation water from agriculture.
>Egypt, with some 74 million people, has become a 
>major importer of wheat in recent years, vying 
>with Japan—traditionally the leading wheat 
>importer—for the top spot. It now imports 40 
>percent of its total grain supply, a number that 
>edges steadily upward as its population outgrows 
>the grain harvest produced with the Nile’s water.
>Algeria, with 33 million people, imports more 
>than half of its grain, which means that the 
>water embodied in the imported grain exceeds the 
>use of water for all purposes from domestic 
>sources. Because of its heavy dependence on 
>imports, Algeria is particularly vulnerable to 
>disruptions, in the event of a world grain 
>Overall, the water required to produce the grain 
>and other farm products imported into the Middle 
>East and North Africa last year equaled the 
>annual flow of the Nile River at Aswan. In 
>effect, the region’s water deficit can be 
>thought of as another Nile flowing into the 
>region in the form of imported grain.
>It is often said that future wars in the Middle 
>East will more likely be fought over water than 
>oil, but the competition for water is taking 
>place in world grain markets. It is the 
>countries that are financially the strongest, 
>not necessarily those that are militarily the 
>strongest, that will fare best in this 
>Knowing where grain import needs will be 
>concentrated tomorrow requires looking at where 
>water deficits are developing today. Thus far, 
>the countries importing much of their grain have 
>been smaller ones. Now we are looking at 
>fast-growing water deficits in both China and 
>India, each with more than a billion people.
>Each year the gap between world water 
>consumption and the sustainable water supply 
>widens. Both aquifer depletion and the diversion 
>of water to cities will contribute to the 
>growing irrigation water deficit and hence to a 
>growing grain deficit in many water-short 
>Because overpumping to satisfying growing food 
>demand virtually guarantees a future drop in 
>food production when aquifers are depleted, many 
>countries are in essence creating a “food bubble 
>economy”—one in which food production is 
>artificially inflated by the unsustainable 
>mining of groundwater.
>The effects of overdrafting were not obvious 
>when farmers began pumping on a large scale a 
>few decades ago. The great attraction of pumping 
>groundwater in contrast to large-scale surface 
>water systems is that farmers can apply the 
>water to crops precisely when it is needed, 
>thereby maximizing water use efficiency. 
>Groundwater is also available during the dry 
>season, enabling many farmers in mild climatic 
>regions to double crop.
>In the United States, 37 percent of all 
>irrigation water comes from underground; the 
>other 63 percent comes from surface sources. Yet 
>three of the top grain-producing states—Texas, 
>Kansas, and Nebraska—each get 70–90 percent of 
>their irrigation water from the Ogallala 
>aquifer, which is essentially a fossil aquifer 
>with little recharge. The unusually high 
>productivity of groundwater-based irrigation 
>means that the food production losses will be 
>disproportionately large when the groundwater 
>runs out.
>At what point does water scarcity translate into 
>food scarcity? In which countries will the 
>irrigation water losses from aquifer depletion 
>translate into a drop in grain production? David 
>Seckler and his colleagues at the International 
>Water Management Institute, the world’s premier 
>water research group, summarized this issue 
>well: “Many of the most populous countries of 
>the world—China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and 
>nearly all the countries of the Middle East and 
>North Africa—have literally been having a free 
>ride over the past two or three decades by 
>depleting their groundwater resources. The 
>penalty for mismanagement of this valuable 
>resource is now coming due and it is no 
>exaggeration to say that the results could be 
>catastrophic for these countries and, given 
>their importance, for the world as a whole.”
>Since expanding irrigation helped triple the 
>world grain harvest from 1950 to 2000, it comes 
>as no surprise that water losses can shrink 
>harvests. With water for irrigation, many 
>countries are in a classic overshoot-and-decline 
>mode. If countries that are overpumping do not 
>move quickly to reduce water use and stabilize 
>water tables, then an eventual drop in food 
>production is almost inevitable.
>#     #     #
>Adapted from Chapter 3, “Emerging Water 
>Shortages,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0: 
>Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a 
>Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & 
>Company, 2006), available on-line at 
>Additional data and information sources at 
>www.earthpolicy.org or contact 
>For reprint permissions contact rjk(at)earthpolicy.org
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Dr. Tom Trail
International Trails
1375 Mt. View Rd.
Moscow, Id. 83843
Tel:  (208) 882-6077
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