Dying of Hunger, Dying of Thirst

In recent months worldwide food crises and food riots have dominated newspaper headlines and captured the attention of global media and political leaders as soaring food and commodities prices plunge an estimated 1 billion people worldwide deeper into poverty and on brink of malnourishment and even starvation—then forcing these masses of distressed people onto the streets to protest. Finally world leaders are paying attention to the plight of the chronically poor and now talk of “food crises” that ravage the lives of the desperately poor. By now, most people know that the reasons for higher food prices are higher petroleum prices (which affect oil-based agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides), higher food-transport prices, diversion of corn and other food crops to produce ethanol and other biofuel, more food demand from the emerging middle class of China and India (and their desires to move up the food chain, to eat more meats, eggs, and dairy), and extreme weather events associated with global warming.  Few people have linked the food shortages to the water shortages—that is, aside from a few articles written by water analysts and experts (for example, Fred Pearce linking water scarcity to food crises).

After big investment banks and speculators on Wall Street have hiked up food, oil, and other commodity prices, they are eyeing the next major commodity: water. Goldman Sachs is urging investors to focus on high-tech end of the $425 billion global water industry because water is the “petroleum for the next century.” Potential areas of investment for Wall Street include manufacturers or servicers of water-filtration equipment, ultraviolet disinfection, membrane-based desalination technology, automated water meters, and other specialized niches in wastewater reuse (The Telegraph, June 6, 2008). Goldman Sachs also published a graph called “Water sector outperformance relative to S&P500” showing trends from 2000 to 2008, with water-sector index soaring to 400 while S&P500 stagnated at or below the 100 level (values rebased to 100).

There is a converging food and water crisis in the making, with eight extremely troubling and interrelated trends in water, as follows:

Global warming: extreme weather events and their destructive consequences, climate uncertainties, and volatilities in precipitation

Depleting groundwater and aquifers all over the world due to population growth, increasing and wasteful agricultural irrigation, and largely irreversible groundwater pollution

Increasing surface water pollution worldwide which makes existing groundwater unusable without substantial treatment (including global increase in chemical usage, from farm chemicals to industrial chemicals and household products)

Privatization, corporatization, and globalization of water resources (the so-called water grab by large multinational corporate interests)

Crumbling water infrastructure, poor water management by municipalities, and lack of public investment in water and wastewater treatment globally

Global inflation of commodities’ prices and their effects on municipal water and wastewater treatment worldwide

Rising demand for water in agriculture through consumer demand for water-intensive foods higher on the food chain (e.g., meats, eggs, and dairy). It has been estimated that the total global meat supply was 71 million tons in 1961 and 284 million tons in 2007…and rising (the New York Times, 2008).

Declining and weakening of governments’ environmental regulations and enforcement to address the issue of pollution, which means that treating the polluted water to make it potable and usable in agriculture will be costly


Depending on the region being examined, any one or a combination of these factors will affect fresh water supplies, delivery, and treatment in the coming years. They will also affect agriculture and food production for billions of people worldwide. Just focusing on two factors of global warming and aquifer depletion, as follows, gives us enough worries about sustainability and the future of agricultural production.

Some facts:

To produce 1 ton of grain, it takes 1,000 tons of water. Producing chicken takes approximately 32 times more water than growing the same amount of wheat; the pork-to-wheat ratio is 65:1, and beef-to-wheat ratio is somewhere between 100:1 to 200:1.

By 2015, almost half of the world’s population, more than 3 billion people, will live in country that are “water-stressed” and have access to less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year, according to the CIA. Back in 2001, the CIA also predicted that an estimated 80% of water is allocated to agriculture in developing countries, an unsustainable proportion, and by 2015, many countries will be unable to maintain their levels of irrigated agriculture—resulting in a steep reduction of agricultural production.  We are already witnessing this trend currently in China and India.

In early 2008, the UN Environment Programme published a rather grim world irrigation map to illustrate unsustainable water withdrawals on all continents.

Worldwide, an estimated 4,400 children under the age of five die each day due to drinking dirty water and poor sanitation, and diarrhea kills five times more children annually than HIV/AIDS, according to the United Nations. With the coming water crises, significantly higher childhood mortality rates can be expected worldwide.

Water is the basis of agriculture—not just in growing food, but also in processing food. Water is the foundation of modern cities and urban sanitation systems—from our indoor plumbing to centralized wastewater-treatment plants. Water is the basis of industries and manufacturing. Water sustains nature and wildlife. In essence, humanity can live without oil—albeit more primitively—but humanity cannot survive without water. Despite its importance, rarely has the issue of water been integrated into our discussions of food crises, except when we briefly talk about global warming and extreme droughts that affect crop-growing regions. Interviewed for the New York Times (June 2, 2008), Barbara Helferrich, a spokeswoman for the European Union’s Environment Directorate, said, “Water will be the environmental issue this year — the problem is urgent and immediate. If you already have water shortages in spring, you know it’s going to be a really bad summer.” A UK-based environment writer Fred Pearce recently wrote that water shortages are a major cause of faltering crop production which results in food shortages: for example, Ukraine, Australia, China, India, and Egypt have been depleting their rivers and groundwater to the point that farmers can no longer irrigate their crops—thus, agricultural output will be reduced. Well-known analyst Lester Brown has been predicting that water shortages will further exacerbate food shortages in many countries.

Goldman Sachs announced water to be the “petroleum for the next century”

So we need to ask the question: what about water in the midst of this precarious global economy and increasingly fragile natural world? How will the shortage and supply volatility of water affect food production and food crises? One similarity between oil and water is that of diminishing supply and rapidly growing demand. With shortages, conflicts and wars arise—this point has been made clear in Michael Klare’s 2002 book Resource Wars. Moreover, many other analysts—from those working for the CIA to those in the United Nations and Forbes magazine—have long predicted water as the major resource in which nations will fight wars over. The Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander said, “Water could become the new oil as a major source of conflict,” during the 2001 World Water Forum in Stockholm. The Crown Prince Willem-Alexander was the previous chairman of the 2001 World Water Forum; he is also the oldest grandson of Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands who was the founder of the elite, highly secretive policy group called the Bilderberg in the 1950s; his mother, Queen Beatrix, is also a member of the Bilderberg and a principal shareholder of the Royal Dutch Shell. The former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali also said, “Water will be more important than oil this century” and that water is the next oil over which nations will fight wars. The late U.S. Senator Paul Simon said, “Nations go to war over oil, but there are substitutes for oil. How much more intractable might wars be that are fought over water, an ever scarcer commodity for which there is no substitute?”

The link between water and food is clear: without water, there can be no irrigated agricultural. According to the Telegraph in June 2008, “A catastrophic water shortage could prove an even bigger threat to mankind this century than soaring food prices and the relentless exhaustion of energy reserves, according to a panel of global experts at the Goldman Sachs ‘Top Five Risks’ conference.”

It is widely known that the genocide in Darfur has been exacerbated by competition over water and land resources by Arab nomads and African farmers as global warming-induced droughts aggravated desertification in northern Darfur for two decades. In the near future, will we see “water riots” and “water wars”—or even genocides and conflicts which masqueraded as ethnic/tribal or religious when the real conflict actually erupted over water? What should we be concerned about and what should we do now to avert the coming water crises?  Let’s focus on two troubling water crises, that of global warming and depleting aquifers.

Extreme Weather, Climate Uncertainties, and Volatilities in Precipitation

Regardless of the current scientific debates on global warming of whether it is man-made or a natural planetary cycle, one thing is certain among scientists: this climate change is not a temporary anomaly. Global warming will worsen in the next decades. Weather will become more extreme and unpredictable in many parts of the world: for example, in June, we have witnessed catastrophic flooding in Iowa and elsewhere in the Mideast, which devastated the corn planting of 2008. Glaciers will melt at even faster rates, further lowering fresh water supplies in many regions. Precipitation will become more unpredictable—while some parts of the world will get more water through floods and storms, others will suffer reduced groundwater supply and even drought. While analysts have cited “temporary weather anomalies” (Washington Post, May 30, 2008, referring to droughts in Australia) as one reason for the sharp spike in food prices, global warming is not a temporary weather phenomenon afflicting the crop-producing regions of the world. In short, the droughts, floods, storms, hurricanes, and extreme weather patterns all over the globe are not short-term events. Globally, the extreme weather will be further exacerbated by the intensification of global warming in the coming decade. The wild and extreme weather patterns are here to stay—in turn, limiting fresh-water supply and food production in many food-growing regions.

In January 2005, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) published new analyses linking rising global temperature to extreme weather, saying that the area on Earth hit by serious droughts more than doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s and that widespread drought occurred in western and southern Africa, eastern Australia, much of Asia and Europe, and Canada (Journal of Hydrometerology, 2005). “Droughts and floods are extreme climate events that are likely to change more rapidly than the average climate,” says NCAR’s Aiguo Dai. “Because they are among the world’s costliest natural disasters and affect a very large number of people each year, it is important to monitor them and perhaps predict their variability.”

A few examples of how global warming has affected food production and resource conflicts worldwide are as follows:

One of the most cited examples is Australia, which suffered six straight years of devastating drought and had 98% of its rice production cut and its agricultural production slashed by one-quarter within the past year. In contrast, at the same time American corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest are suffering from floods and too much rain in the planting seasons of spring and summer 2008.

Scientists working with the United Nations have also projected that Australia’s agricultural and forestry production will decline significantly by 2030 due to increases in fires and droughts.

The Horn of Africa is also being crippled by severe droughts, with the poorest in Somalia and Ethiopia facing imminent famine and mass starvation. On the African continent, more than 300 million people already face water scarcity, and water shortages in Sub-Saharan Africa are expected to rise by almost one-third by 2050.

Darfur suffered droughts and conflicts over water and land resources before the conflicts turned lethally ethnic and tribal in nature, from a local resource conflict into a full-blown genocide. In June 2007, UN Environmental Prpgramme (UNep) said that peace in Darfur is nearly impossible unless the issues of environmental destruction were addressed. A lobbying group Justice Africa told the BBC in July 2007 that “the root cause of the conflict [between Arab nomads and black African farmers] is resources—drought and desertification in North Darfur.”

In early June 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a statewide drought in California, stating that the 2008 spring was the driest on record and saying, “We must recognize the severity of this crisis we face.” California is a major food-production region of the world with its agricultural exports exceeding $9 billion in 2005.

Desertification is one of the more neglected environmental issues today, which is aggravated by global warming. Desertification is a critical issue because it affects arable land’s productivity and consequently, food production. The United Nations has estimated that more than 250 million people are directed affected by desertification in 110 countries occupying one-third of earth’s surface (this figure includes 135 million in danger of being driven from their land), and one billion people’s livelihood at risk. As 70% of all agricultural drylands are being degraded, they are at risk of desertification, which carries a price tag of U.S.$42 billion a year. Desertification further exacerbates water scarcity and degrades the land to the point that it is no longer productive.

Scientists have forecasted that as global warming heats the planet, the climate will be wetter in some places and drier in others. The worst part of that changing weather and volatile precipitation patterns will leave millions of people without dependable fresh-water supplies for drinking, agricultural irrigation, and hydropower. Global warming spells devastation for most countries’ water and agricultural future. It is clear then that we should expect global warming to decrease long-term freshwater availability, which in turn will also simultaneously lower food production and worsen the food and hunger situation in many developing countries.

A Hungrier Future Due to Our Unsustainable Withdraw of Groundwater

It typically takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain. It is estimated that almost 10% of the global food supply (160 million tons of grain) is currently produced using unsustainable practice of overdrawing groundwater according to the USAID. But depleting groundwater is not only a threat to future food production—it is a contributor to sea-level rise. For example, publishing in Hydrogeology Journal, researchers found that the estimated global groundwater withdrawals to be at 750-800 km3/year, and that this massive amount of aquifer depletion may result in seal-level rise:

Worldwide, the magnitude of groundwater depletion from storage may be so large as to constitute a measurable contributor to sea-level rise. For example, the total volume depleted from the High Plains aquifer equates to about 0.75 mm, or about 0.5%, of the observed sea-level rise during the 20th century. Reducing future groundwater depletion (and increasing groundwater storage) can help in a small way to reduce future sea-level rise.  (Konikow and Kendy, 2005)

Unsustainable groundwater withdrawal and aquifer depletion will exacerbate the effects of volatile precipitation patterns on agriculture. Aquifer depletion in a few key grain- and food-producing countries with large populations—namely, the United States, Mexico, China, and India—is briefly summarized as follows:

United States — the most well-known one is the Ogallala/High Plains aquifer (depleting at an estimated 12 billion cubic meters per year, with some areas dropping by more than 100 feet), but aquifer depletion is widespread across the country. In the Pacific Northwest, Columbia River Basalt aquifer of Washington and Oregon has declined by more than 100 feet in several areas. In Tucson and Phoenix areas, water-level declines of between 300 and 500 feet occurred in much of the area. In California, the Antelope Valley’s groundwater level plummeted by more than 300 feet in some areas since the early 1900s, and the southwestern part of the Mojave Desert have seen land subsidence between 1992 and 1999 and past land subsidence linked to water-level reduction of more than 100 feet between the 1950s and the 1990s. Before its real estate boom, Las Vegas had already suffered a water-level plunge of 300 feet in 1999. In Chicago-Milwaukee area, groundwater levels sank by as much as 900 feet under Chicago and eastern Wisconsin. In Houston, Texas, underground water levels fell by some 400 feet, leading to land subsidence of up to 10 feet. The Sparta aquifer under Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee has seen declines of up to 70 feet in some areas. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, there was a tenfold rise in groundwater pumping between 1930s and 1970, sinking the groundwater level by 200 feet and leading to saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico into several aquifers. Let’s put the importance of U.S. aquifers in context: agricultural export for the United States is estimated at a record-setting $108.5 billion in 2008 (including approximately 63 million tons of corn) according to the USDA.


Mexico — the well-known example is the Mexico City Aquifer (the central section of the metropolitan area has fallen by as much as 8.5 meters, and the city could run out of water in the next decade), but a third of all water used in Mexico comes from aquifers. All grain crops (such as winter wheat and sorghum) in Mexico rely on irrigation using aquifer water. In Guanajuato, an agricultural state, the water table is plummeting by more than 2 meters a year. According to the USAID, Mexico is depleting its groundwater reserves exceeding 3 meters a year in many of its main agricultural areas. Mexico is located along the same latitudes as the Sahara Desert; half of the country is so arid that on average, Mexico has less drinking water per capita than Egypt and 60% less water than it did 50 years ago.

China — China has many serious water problems and they have been well-documented by numerous analysts. A decade ago, analysts have reported that China’s Yellow River went from not reaching the sea for 15 days in 1972 to 226 days in 1997. The Yellow River supplies water to 15% of China’s agricultural land and more than 150 million people; the river is so polluted that an estimated one-third of fish species in the river have gone extinct. Groundwater is another major problem: According to researchers, the Quaternary Aquifer of the North China Plain is one of the largest aquifer systems in the world and occupies extensive tracts of Hai River and catchments of Huai and Yellow river systems and beyond; but it, like other aquifers in northeastern China, has many problems: (1) falling groundwater table in shallow aquifers; (2) declining water levels in deeper aquifers; (3) saltwater intrusion and aquifer salination attributable to overpumping; and (4) aquifer pollution from uncontrolled and reckless dumping of sewage and industrial wastewater (Foster et al., Hydrogeology Journal, 2004). Lester Brown and most China analysts take an extremely grim view of China’s water situation—thus China’s food-production capability and its need to import large amounts of grains and other foodstuffs from the global market.

India — Like China, India also faces a long list of water problems, from supply and demand to access and quality. India’s falling harvests can be attributable to droughts and falling groundwater levels. Daniel Pepper wrote a goods article linking Asia’s food crisis to the lack of water and the millions of farmers in India that overdraw the groundwater: one example he cited was that in the 1970s, Indian farmers had only 200,000 electric water pumps, today they own 12 million electric water pumps and 8 million diesel water pumps. Lester Brown also wrote about Tamil Nadu have more than 62 million people but with 95% of wells going dry due to rapidly falling water tables. Additionally, water tables in India are dropping by 1 to 3 meters annually in some parts, with water tables in Punjab, India’s breadbasket, plummeting by a whopping 1 meter per year.

Bangladesh — the groundwater levels have plunged almost 3 meters due to upstream dams and diversions of the Ganges River. Bangladesh is simultaneously afflicted by rising sea level, catastrophic floods, and depleting aquifers—all three severely affect its agricultural productivity (its existing production is already less than the global average and there are worries that its food production is not sustainable even at the current level).

Water is integral to highly productive irrigated agriculture. Without an adequate water supply, crop production will be diminished globally. With global warming-associated extreme weather, agriculture will be adversely affected as well. This week, as we hear the daily news of the catastrophic floods of Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and elsewhere along the Mississippi River, that farmers will miss this corn-planting season due to flood-soaked land, corn prices reached record-high, stratospheric price levels.

So far we haven’t begun to discuss the serious problems of surface-water and groundwater pollution, privatization of water rights, water-resource grabbing by corporations, the collapsing water infrastructure, poor water management by municipalities worldwide, rising global inflation of chemicals and inputs of drinking-water and wastewater treatment, the rising demand and increasing pressure on existing water sources via soaring consumer demands for water-intensive foods (i.e., meats, dairy, eggs), and weakening governmental regulations to address water quality and water access.  By analyzing the state of water, we can see a rather grim future—that of a hungrier one—for the world’s poor.

JO-SHING YANG is the author of “Ecological Planning, Design, and Engineering. Solving Global Water Crises: New Paradigms in Wastewater and Water Treatment. Small and On-Site Systems for Community Water Self-Sufficiency and Sustainability.” E-mail: jsyang@alum.mit.edu










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