Water Enough for All?

05/17/2012 11:24 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2012

All during spring and summer I love to watch the huge fish hawks called Ospreys building up their stick nests, then incubating their eggs, and then raising their chicks. How many chicks, how many Ospreys for that matter, depends on how much food.

The same's true for people. But Ospreys can't make more fish for themselves. People, we're different. By fishing, we take food from Ospreys (and many other creatures). And by farming we make more food, something that the birds can't do.

In the latter half of the 20th century, humanity's food production tripled, thanks to new high-yield grain varieties, artificial pesticides and fertilizer (40 to 60 percent of the nitrogen in the human body now originates in a factory), and -- pumped water.

World grain production tripled in the second half of the 20th century. The Green Revolution was accomplished largely by doubling the amount of irrigated land. Hundreds of millions of wells now reach into the earth like straws in a thick drink on a hot day. But as with many things, we're taking more water than we're getting.

Because much food production relies on pumping groundwater faster than it recharges, the world has blown a big food bubble. The Green Revolution turned India -- where millions once died in famines -- into a food exporter. But now in parts of India, water tables are dropping more than half an inch a day. Many wells are depleted, and irrigated farmland has shrunk.

India recently stopped sending rice to Bangladesh, then India began importing rice from Australia. (But Australia's droughts dropped wheat exports 60 percent; its rice exports plunged 90 percent.) An Indian water official said ominously, "When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India."

Many wells mine deep "fossil" water, vast reserves of locked-away liquid that, like oil, can be pumped dry. Where China grows half its wheat and a third of its corn, the water table drops ten feet each year. In the U.S. the water has dropped more than 100 feet under Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

In many countries, women walk an average of four to five miles just for household water. By 2025, as many as two-thirds of all people will live in places suffering a scarcity of clean water. Health experts expect lack of clean water to cause more cholera, dysentery, hepatitis and infant mortality.

Who will have water? A ton of grain represents a thousand tons of water, and grain imports become proxy for rain. The poorest countries will of course lose the bidding for food. We may have a hard time feeling their pain, so for us, the Hausa people of West Africa have a saying: "The stone in water does not comprehend how parched is the hill."

Adapted from: 2011. The View From Lazy Point. Henry Holt Co. New York, winner of the 2012 Orion Book Award.

References and Further Reading:

Grain harvests tripled since 1950: Brown, L, 2008, Plan B 3.0, Norton, New York and London, p 176. Nitrogen: Fryzuk, M. D., 2004, "Ammonia Transformed," Nature 427: 498-9.

Demand for water: Pearce, F., 2004, "Asian Farmers Suck The Continent Dry," New Scientist 18 August. See also: F. Peirce, 2006, "The Parched Planet," New Scientist 26 Feb.

Groundwater and grain: Brown, L, 2008, Plan B 3.0, Norton, New York and London, pp 68-9, 71, 82. Education and reduction in fertility: Brown, L, 2008, Plan B 3.0, pp 109, 134.

When the balloon bursts: Fred Pearce, 2004, "Asian Farmers Sucking The Continent Dry," New Scientist 28 August.

Water tables dropping: Brown, L, 2008, Plan B 3.0, Norton, New York and London, pp 72, 74. See also: Brown, L.R., 2008, "Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?" Scientific American May, available online. Water in Asia: Pearce, F, 2004, "Asian Farmers Sucking The Continent Dry," New Scientist 28 August.

Two-thirds of all people will suffer water scarcity:
U. N.-Thematic Initiatives, 2006, "Coping With Water Scarcity: A Strategic Issue And Priority For System-Wide Action," available online.

Water: United Nations website waterforlifedecade.org. See also: Globalfootprint.org.

Grain a proxy for rain: Pearce, F., "Water Scarcity: The Real Food Crisis," Yale Environment 360 available online. See also: Myers, N., 2002 "Environmental Refugees: A Growing Phenomenon Of The 21st Century," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 357: 609-613. And see: Sachs, J.D. 2007, "Climate Change Refugees," Scientific American June, online.