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Our Thirsty Future


In March, twenty-four thousand delegates from around the world gathered in Kyoto for the World Water Forum. “Our discussions will have far more effect on humankind for the twenty-first century than…any other political problem of the day,” said William Cosgrove, vice-president of the World Water Council. The United Nations reported that it had identified three hundred potential “zones” in which there is now “water conflict.” Indeed, some development workers have insisted for the last two decades that water is becoming the planet’s most precious substance—“wet gold”—and that the next round of regional wars will be fought over rivers and aquifers.

And yet, even as they were supposed to be meeting, delegates gathered around large-screen televisions to watch the latest news from Iraq—from that other war fought in part over last century’s preeminent liquid, good old oil. Hundreds of delegates were leaving the conference early, and the heads of state were staying home. Kofi Annan sent his wife, and Jacques Chirac sent only a videotape decrying “resignation in the face of inequality.”

Water, in other words, is a problem whose time has not quite yet come. It hasn’t even risen to the status of the last crisis that wasn’t solved by a meeting in Kyoto, global warming. The burden of the books under review, however, is that the problem can’t be postponed much longer.

Clearly, water has long been a critical problem for poor people. In many places, access to clean water all but defines poverty. The consensus among experts is that 1.4 billion people in the world do not have access to safe water (that is, roughly, one person in four), and 2.3 billion people lack adequate sanitation (more than one in three). If you live in North America or Japan, you use on average 158 gallons of water a day (even though Americans now drink far more soda than tap water). If you live in Europe you use about 80 gallons, and if you live in sub-Saharan Africa 2.5 to 5 gallons. If you’re unlucky enough to live in rural Haiti, it’s less than that. As a result, 2.2 million people die annually from diseases related to contaminated drinking water—including about one child every ten seconds. “Every year two million children are dying from lack of access to water or waterborne diseases,” according to William Cosgrove. “That’s year in and year out, it’s been going on for decades.”

But that steady drip, drip, drip of daily dying has not led to a political crisis—it’s more like background noise. It doesn’t get louder and more ominous, as with AIDS in Africa; it doesn’t threaten visible people, as with SARS, which this spring claimed lives in affluent parts of Asia. Though there has been a growing number of protests in cities around the world, the worst water problems are often in the countryside, where protests rarely draw attention. Who has time to protest when you’re spending three, four, five hours a day walking to and from the well, the tap, the river?

For water to become as urgent an issue as oil, it will have to cause more immediate and chaotic disruption. That is what the veteran eco-statistician Lester Brown predicts in two of the chapters in his forthcoming book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. In Brown’s view, water shortages will soon manifest themselves as food shortages—because 70 percent of the water used by human beings is used for irrigation. The spread of irrigation is one of the things that have allowed us to avoid the Malthusian fate environmentalists used to predict; even as population has soared, so has grain production, in some measure because we’ve found access to enough water to make arid regions bloom. Water demand has tripled in the last half-century, a demand that has been met by pumping it from aquifers—underground layers of porous rock or sand containing water, into which wells can be sunk. The diesel-driven and electrically powered pumps that make the extraction of water possible became available around the world at roughly the same time; hence it is no surprise, writes Brown, that we now face “the near-simultaneous depletion of aquifers.” Consider the situation in the three great grain-producing countries: China, India, and the United States.

In China, a survey released in Beijing in August of 2001 revealed that the water table—the level below which the ground is saturated with water—under the North China Plain, which produces half the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. In the heart of the region, the water table fell nearly ten feet in the year 2000 alone. A new World Bank study reports that new wells drilled around Beijing have to descend a thousand meters, more than half a mile, to tap fresh water. Pumping from that depth makes agriculture marginally profitable at best, “often forcing farmers back to dryland farming.”

As a result of water shortages, reduced government grain supports, and the loss of farm labor as China industrializes, the nation’s wheat harvest has fallen in five of the last six years. After peaking at 123 million tons in 1997, it may not exceed 88 million tons this year. Similarly, the rice crop has fallen from a peak of 140 million tons in 2003 to about 121 million tons this year. Corn harvests have stayed steady—which makes sense because corn requires less intense irrigation.

India is also overpumping its aquifers—studies of the wells in Rajasthan suggest the water table there has fallen more than 130 feet over the last two decades. The country’s harvests of wheat and rice are still increasing, but according to Lester Brown, “The loss of irrigation water could override technological progress and start shrinking the harvest within the next few years.” In the US, wells have gone dry on thousands of farms in the southern Great Plains. Still, despite the “drawdown,” or lowering of the water level of the Ogalalla Aquifer, the huge underground reservoir west of the Mississippi, “irrigation water loss…does not appear to be large enough to reduce the grain harvest in the foreseeable future.” Mostly that’s because America, blessed with ample rainfall, grows only about 20 percent of its grain on irrigated land, compared with 70 percent in China and 50 percent in India.

Similar drawdowns seem to be taking place around the world—villages in eastern Iran are being abandoned as wells go dry, and the Saudis, who used mile-deep wells to create, among other follies, a large-scale dairy industry, are now cutting back sharply on water use. Even Israel, renowned for its water conservation technology, is phasing out irrigated wheat production.

In essence, Brown writes, we have created a food bubble economy. Just as we have built our industrial economy on cheap oil, so we have managed to artificially inflate food production by an unsustainable reliance on underground water. The pumping of groundwater has generated tremendous crop yields, even compared with surface-water irrigation from dams and canals, which can’t be as easily turned on and off at just the right moment. But when the water starts to run dry, that free ride is over, and farmers will have to return to growing what they can with the water that falls on their regions. For China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, he says, the question “is not whether the bubble will burst, but when.”1

Brown studies the world’s water situation from a distance, through the statistical tables of about a hundred agencies and governments. But the few reporters who have taken to the field to look at this question corroborate many of his fears. Take Pakistan. With a population of 140 million (growing by four million a year) it is for the moment self-sufficient in food. But, according to Brown, this is mainly because it is overpumping the aquifers that lie beneath the fertile Punjab plain.

That’s not the only problem, however. As Diane Raines Ward points out in her recent book, Water Wars, many Pakistani fields have been abandoned because of a different sideeffect of overwatering: fields fed by the world’s largest irrigation system have become waterlogged. “Too much water, as damaging as too little, chokes off oxygen and life from the root systems of plants, interferes with the rotting of organic materials, reduces nitrogen, and encourages the accumu- lation of toxins in the ground.” Most of all it “dissolves more and more salts out of the soil or from saline rocks or rock formations.” In Pakistan, 55 million tons of salt are carried into the farmlands of the Punjab and the Sindh annually in canal water, but only 11 million to 16 million tons run off into the sea. The rest is left behind on the fields by evaporation, “coating the earth in a deathly crust…. A full quarter of Pakistan’s crop potential is disabled by salt.” Better drainage in the fields would help the problem—but “better drainage” is shorthand for truly enormous public works projects. Local experts estimate that they will cost perhaps $9 billion.

Robert Glennon’s Water Follies, a lively account of hydrology (the science of water) in America, makes the point that, even aside from the effects on agriculture, groundwater pumping can set off ecological catastrophes. Even in this generally wet nation, 25 percent of our water comes from groundwater pumping—about 28 trillion gallons in 1995. As water tables lower, the overuse of water has “caused rivers, springs, lakes, and wetlands to dry up, the ground beneath us to collapse, and fish, birds, wildlife, trees, and shrubs to die.” In the Southwest, verdant rivers, such as the Santa Cruz in Tucson, turned into “desiccated sandboxes.” In Tampa Bay, lakes have disappeared down sinkholes almost overnight.

How could Americans have been this careless? The answer is that they didn’t know what they were doing. Robert Glennon makes the useful point that hydrology is a relatively new science; it was easy to imagine that there were more or less inexhaustible quantities of water somewhere down there.

That sense informed the nineteenth-century legal debates about who would own water in the US. In much of this country, the doctrines of “capture” or of “reasonable use” govern how much water you can take from beneath your land. Under either doctrine, the answer is pretty much all you want. Glennon’s book has many stories of people who poked big holes in their property and used the water that gushed out to set up catfish farms in the desert or fill millions of liters of expensive bottled water—even as their neighbors watched creeks start to dry up and aquifers shrink. The tricky and complex systems of water rights that govern the American West in particular lead to truly ludicrous results. Cotton and alfalfa and rice are grown with irrigation water in arid climates, when there’s more than enough rainfall back east to grow the same things. Artificial lakes have been created in Phoenix suburbs. Hundreds of thousands of acres of lush fairway are maintained across the desert West. Some of those practices will clearly have to be limited. In fact, some of the worst excesses of desert agriculture are beginning to disappear as farmers figure out that it is more profitable to sell their “water rights.”

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    For a more detailed, if slightly older, analysis of world irrigation patterns, the standard reference is Sandra Postel’s Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (Norton, 1999).

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