Growing numbers face water poverty

Posted: 17 January 2001

Author: Lester R. Brown

At a time when drought in the United States, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan is in the news, it is easy to forget that far more serious water shortages are emerging as the demand for water in many countries simply outruns the supply. Water tables are now falling on every continent. Literally scores of countries are facing water shortages as water tables fall and wells go dry.

We live in a water-challenged world, one that is becoming more so each year as 80 million additional people stake their claims to the Earth's water resources. Unfortunately, nearly all the projected 3 billion people to be added over the next half century will be born in countries that are already experiencing water shortages. Even now many in these countries lack enough water to drink, to satisfy hygienic needs, and to produce food.

By 2050, India is projected to add 519 million people and China 211 million. Pakistan is projected to add nearly 200 million, going from 151 million at present to 348 million. Egypt, Iran, and Mexico are slated to increase their populations by more than half by 2050. In these and other water-short countries, population growth is sentencing millions of people to hydrological poverty, a local form of poverty that is difficult to escape.

Even with today's 6 billion people, the world has a huge water deficit. Using data on overpumping for China, India, Saudi Arabia, North Africa, and the United States, Sandra Postel, author of Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?, calculates the annual depletion of aquifers at 160 billion cubic meters or 160 billion tons. Using the rule of thumb that it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, this 160-billion-ton water deficit is equal to 160 million tons of grain or one half the U.S. grain harvest.

Massive amounts of water are usedto irrigate cropland in California© Inga Spence/Holt Studios InternationalUrban demands

At average world grain consumption of just over 300 kilograms or one third of a ton per person per year, this would feed 480 million people. Stated otherwise, 480 million of the world's 6 billion people are being fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water.

Overpumping is a new phenomenon, one largely confined to the last half century. Only since the development of powerful diesel and electrically driven pumps have we had the capacity to pull water out of aquifers faster than it is replaced by precipitation.

Some 70 per cent of the water consumed worldwide, including both that diverted from rivers and that pumped from underground, is used for irrigation, while some 20 per cent is used by industry, and 10 per cent for residential purposes. In the increasingly intense competition for water among sectors, agriculture almost always loses. The 1,000 tons of water used in India to produce one ton of wheat worth perhaps $200 can also be used to expand industrial output by easily $10,000, or 50 times as much. This ratio helps explain why, in the American West, the sale of irrigation water rights by farmers to cities is an almost daily occurrence.

In addition to population growth, urbanization and industrialization also expand the demand for water. As developing country villagers, traditionally reliant on the village well, move to urban high-rise apartment buildings with indoor plumbing, their residential water use can easily triple. Industrialization takes even more water than urbanization.

Rising affluence in itself generates additional demand for water. As people move up the food chain, consuming more beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, they use more grain. A western diet rich in livestock products requires 800 kilograms of grain per person a year, whereas diets in India, dominated by a starchy food staple such as rice, typically need only 200 kilograms. Using four times as much grain per person means using four times as much water.

Once a localized phenomenon, water scarcity is now crossing national borders via the international grain trade. The world's fastest growing grain import market is North Africa and the Middle East, an area that includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and the Middle East through Iran. Virtually every country in this region is simultaneously experiencing water shortages and rapid population growth.

Growing imports

As the demand for water in the region's cities and industries increases, it is typically satisfied by diverting water from irrigation. The loss in food production capacity is then offset by importing grain from abroad. Since 1 ton of grain represents 1,000 tons of water, this becomes the most efficient way to import water.

Last year, Iran imported seven million tons of wheat, eclipsing Japan to become the world's leading wheat importer. This year, Egypt is also projected to move ahead of Japan. Iran and Egypt have nearly 70 million people each. Both populations are increasing by more than a million a year and both are pressing against the limits of their water supplies.

The water required to produce the grain and other foodstuffs imported into North Africa and the Middle East last year was roughly equal to the annual flow of the Nile River. Stated otherwise, the fast-growing water deficit of this region is equal to another Nile flowing into the region in the form of imported grain.

It is now often said that future wars in the region will more likely be fought over water than oil. Perhaps, but given the difficulty in winning a water war, the competition for water seems more likely to take place in world grain markets. The countries that will "win" in this competition will be those that are financially strongest, not those that are militarily strongest.

The world water deficit grows larger with each year, making it potentially more difficult to manage. If we decided abruptly to stabilize water tables everywhere by simply pumping less water, the world grain harvest would fall by some 160 million tons, or 8 per cent, and grain prices would go off the top of the chart. If the deficit continues to widen, the eventual adjustment will be even greater.

Farming in Cameroon© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesUnless governments in water-short countries act quickly to stabilize population and to raise water productivity, their water shortages may soon become food shortages. The risk is that the growing number of water-short countries, including population giants China and India, with rising grain import needs will overwhelm the exportable supply in food surplus countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. This in turn could destabilize world grain markets.

Another risk of delay in dealing with the deficit is that some low-income, water-short countries will not be able to afford to import needed grain, trapping millions of their people in hydrological poverty, thirsty and hungry, unable to escape.

Although there are still some opportunities for developing new water resources, restoring the balance between water use and the sustainable supply will depend primarily on demand-side initiatives, such as stabilizing population and raising water productivity.

Governments can no longer separate population policy from the supply of water. And just as the world turned to raising land productivity a half century ago when the frontiers of agricultural settlement disappeared, so it must now turn to raising water productivity.

The first step toward this goal is to eliminate the water subsidies that foster inefficiency. The second step is to raise the price of water to reflect its cost. Shifting to more water-efficient technologies, more water-efficient crops, and more water-efficient forms of animal protein offer a huge potential for raising water productivity. These shifts will move faster if the price of water more closely reflects its value.

Lester Brown is President of the Earth Policy Institute - a Washington-based non-profit organization which aims to provide a vision of a sustainable economy.