Global threat to food supply as water wells dry up, warns top environment expert


Lester Brown says grain harvests are already shrinking as US, India and China come close to ‘peak water’

Iraq is among the countries in the Middle East facing severe water shortages. Photograph: Ali al-Saadi/AFP

Iraq is among the countries in the Middle East facing severe water shortages. Photograph: Ali al-Saadi/AFP

 

Wells are drying up and underwater tables falling so fast in the Middle East and parts of India, China and the US that food supplies are seriously threatened, one of the world’s leading resource analysts has warned.

In a major new essay Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, claims that 18 countries, together containing half the world’s people, are now overpumping their underground water tables to the point – known as “peak water” – where they are not replenishing and where harvests are getting smaller each year.

The situation is most serious in the Middle East. According to Brown: “Among the countries whose water supply has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. By 2016 Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tonnes of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its population of 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

“The world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.”

Brown warns that Syria’s grain production peaked in 2002 and since then has dropped 30%; Iraq has dropped its grain production 33% since 2004; and production in Iran dropped 10% between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry.

“Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen there by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain.”

Running Low

There is also concern about falling water tables in China, India and the US, the world’s three largest food-producing countries. “In India, 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, in China 130 million. In the United States the irrigated area is shrinking in leading farm states with rapid population growth, such as California and Texas, as aquifers are depleted and irrigation water is diverted to cities.”

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the US as the world’s largest grain producer, says Brown. “The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its maize is falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.”

The situation in India may be even worse, given that well drillers are now using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water half a mile or more deep. “The harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but only because of massive overpumping from the water table. The margin between food consumption and survival is precarious in India, whose population is growing by 18 million per year and where irrigation depends almost entirely on underground water. Farmers have drilled some 21m irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water, and water tables are declining at an accelerating rate in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.”

In the US, farmers are overpumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. “It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions,” says Brown.

“In Texas, located on the shallow end of the aquifer, the irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37% since then. In Oklahoma irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25%. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30%. Nebraska saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15%.”

Brown warned that many other countries may be on the verge of declining harvests. “With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind.”

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Obama’s rhetoric makes climate action a simpler question of right and wrong


Will other world leaders take a cue from US President who is making climate change action a question of ethics and morals?

President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change in Washington. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change in Washington. Photograph: Charles Dharapak/AP

THERE are a lot of decisions in life that are easier because we know the difference between right and wrong – it’s why we wouldn’t steal a biscuit from a poor homeless orphan or kick away a pensioner’s walking stick as they’re about to step on to a pedestrian crossing.

For these reasons, stealing stuff that’s not yours or assaulting pensioners (or anyone else for that matter) is considered by the community at large to be ethically or morally wrong as well as being against the law.

Recent rhetorical flourishes from father-of-two Barack Obama, the President of the United States, have tossed climate change into this same bucket of ethical decisions.

Obama has tugged at the needle of our moral compasses several times with soundbites loaded with ethical ordnance. Take these examples from his recent climate change speech in Washington and his weekly White House address.

Some day our children and our children’s children will look us in eye they and they will ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer and more stable world? I want to be able to say, yes we did… Decades of carefully reviewed science tells us our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on the world we leave to our children… those of us in positions of responsibility will need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of our children… The question is not whether we need to act.  The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late…. We will be judged – as a people, as a society, and as a country – on where we go from here… power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That’s not right, that’s not safe, and it needs to stop.

It’s not the first time the President has asked us to look into the eyes of our kids for a reason to act on climate change. In his second term victory speech in November 2012, he said  “we want our children to live in an an America… that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

During his State of the Union address in February, he said that “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change”.

Looking at the words alone, Obama is simplifying the climate change issue down to a question of right and wrong. Cutting the use of fossil fuels = right. Not cutting the use of fossil fuels = wrong.

Climate campaigners will point to a mismatch between the words and his ongoing support for fracked gas, but taking such an emotive position on the issue hands a very large metaphorical stick to campaigners with which they can beat their President if and when his actions fail to match the words. When Obama says he wants to lead the world on the issue, the stick gets handed around to everyone else.

But this strong ethical position on the issue may give other leaders cause to stop and think about how they justify action on climate change to their citizenry.

Alongside arguments made on an economic basis (we’ll fall behind in the Clean Industrial Revolution or we’ll get slugged with massive clean up bills from fires, floods and storm surges), a health basis (prolonged heat waves can kill) or a survival basis (we’ve still got to find food when extreme weather decimates crops), how many other leaders will simply say – as Obama now is – that strong action is ethically the right thing to do?

Australia, for example, is a relatively small contributor to the global problem when it comes to its own emissions – roughly three per cent of global emissions if you count greenhouse gases emitted domestically and those dug up and sent overseas to be burned elsewhere. Emissions from the likes of China, India and the US eclipse those of Australia.

Yet in per capita terms, Australia is one of the worst offenders. Then there’s the country’s world leading position on coal exports, its soon-to-be world leading position on exports of Liquified Natural Gas and, as I’ve already written here, the ongoing support for further expansion of fossil fuel mining and exports.

Just as President Obama prefaced his speech on the decades of scientific research into the impacts of burning coal, oil and gas on the climate, Australia’s Climate Commission recently laid out the issue clearly for all concerned.

Looking at what needs to happen to have a decent chance of staying beneath 2C of global warming and the real-life impacts that come with that benign-sounding number, the commission said:

It is clear that most fossil fuels must be left in the ground and cannot be burned.

But some watchers might question the wisdom of that 2C guardrail, given the kind of extreme weather events being delivered now after only 1C of global warming.

A new study just released has looked at Australia’s record melting summer heatwave of 2012/13.

Chart showing maximum temperatures reached across Australia during 2012/13 summer heatwave

Chart showing maximum temperatures reached across Australia during 2012/13 summer heatwave

 

As the Bureau of Meteorology has recorded, the heatwave gave Australia its hottest day on record – 40.3C (104.5F). For seven days straight, the average maximum temperature across the country was 39C (102F).

During the heatwave, a maximum temperature of 45C (113F) or more was recorded at least once for 46.9 per cent of the country.

Thongs (aka flip-flops) melted and petrol pumps were turned off to stop fuel vaporising. Hundreds of bush fires destroyed properties and livelihoods.

The study in the leading journal Geophysical Research Letters found that the extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere put there by human activity had increased the risk of the heatwave happening by a factor of between two-and-a-half and five.

So are decisions made now and into the future to increase these risks by digging up and burning more fossil fuels ethically questionable? If you take your cue from Obama’s words, then the answer may be yes.