Posted by & filed under Consumerism, Deforestation, Desertification, Food Shortages, Global Warming/Climate Change, Soil Erosion & Contamination, Water Contaminaton & Loss.

by Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute

Peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water. We can produce food without oil, but not without water.

We drink on average four liters of water per day, in one form or another, but the food we eat each day requires 2,000 liters of water to produce, or 500 times as much. Getting enough water to drink is relatively easy, but finding enough to produce the ever-growing quantities of grain the world consumes is another matter.

Grain consumed directly supplies nearly half of our calories. That consumed indirectly as meat, milk, and eggs supplies a large part of the remainder. Today roughly 40 percent of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land. It thus comes as no surprise that irrigation expansion has played a central role in tripling the world grain harvest over the last six decades.

During the last half of the twentieth century, the world’s irrigated area expanded from close to 250 million acres (100 million hectares) in 1950 to roughly 700 million in 2000. This near tripling of world irrigation within 50 years was historically unique. But since then the growth in irrigation has come to a near standstill, expanding only 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.

In looking at water and our future, we face many questions and few answers. Could the world be facing peak water? Or has it already peaked?

Farmers get their irrigation water either from rivers or from underground aquifers. Historically, beginning with the Sumerians some 6,000 years ago, irrigation water came from building dams across rivers, creating reservoirs that then enabled them to divert the water onto the land through a network of gravity-fed canals. This method of irrigation prevailed until the second half of the twentieth century, where with few sites remaining for building dams, the prospects for expanding surface irrigation faded. Farmers then turned to drilling wells to tap underground water resources.

In doing so, they learned that there are two types of aquifers: those that are replenishable through rainfall, which are in the majority, and those that consist of water laid down eons ago, and thus do not recharge. The latter, known as fossil aquifers, include two strategically important ones, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain and the Ogallala aquifer under the U.S. Great Plains.

Tapping underground water resources helped expand world food production, but as the demand for grain continued climbing, so too did the amount of water pumped. Eventually the extraction of water began to exceed the recharge of aquifers from precipitation, and water tables began to fall. And then wells begin to go dry. In effect, overpumping creates a water-based food bubble, one that will burst when the aquifer is depleted and the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge.

Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers — China, India, and the United States — and several other populous countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Mexico.

During the last couple of decades, several of these countries have overpumped to the point that aquifers are being depleted and wells are going dry. They have passed not only peak water, but also peak grain production. Among the countries whose use of water has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In these countries peak grain has followed peak water.

Nowhere are falling water tables and the shrinkage of irrigated agriculture more dramatic than in Saudi Arabia, a country as water-poor as it is oil-rich. After the Arab oil export embargo in 1973, the Saudis realized they were vulnerable to a counter-embargo on grain. To become self-sufficient in wheat, they developed a heavily subsidized irrigated agriculture based heavily on pumping water from fossil aquifers.

After being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the Saudis announced in early 2008 that, with their aquifers largely depleted, they would reduce wheat planting by one eighth each year until 2016, when production would end. By then Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15 million tons of wheat, rice, corn, and barley to feed its 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

Syria, a country of 22 million people riddled by civil war, is also overpumping its underground water. Its grain production peaked in 2001 and during the years since has dropped 32 percent. It, too, is becoming heavily dependent on imported grain.

In neighboring Iraq, grain production has plateaued over the last decade. In 2012 it was dependent on the world market for two thirds of its consumption. In addition to aquifer depletion, both Syria and Iraq are also suffering from a reduced flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as upstream Turkey claims more water for its own use.

In Yemen, a nation of 24 million people that shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the water table is falling by roughly 6 feet a year as water use outstrips aquifer recharge. With one of the world’s fastest-growing populations and with water tables falling throughout the country, Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen by nearly half over the last 40 years. By 2015, irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain. Living on borrowed water and borrowed time, Yemen could disintegrate into a group of tribal fiefdoms warring over water.

Thus in the Arab Middle East 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 9,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.

Other countries with much larger populations are also near or beyond peak water. In Iran, a country with 77 million people, grain production dropped 10 percent between 2007 and 2012 as irrigation wells started to go dry. One quarter of its current grain harvest is based on overpumping. With its population growing by a million people per year, it, too, faces a day of reckoning.

Pakistan, with a population of 182 million that is growing by 3 million per year, is also mining its underground water. Most of its irrigation water comes from the Indus river system, but in the Pakistani part of the fertile Punjab plain, the drop in water tables appears to be similar to the better-known fall that is occurring in India.

Observation wells near the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi showed a fall in the water table between 1982 and 2000 that ranged from 3 to 6 feet a year. In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, water tables around the capital, Quetta, are falling by 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) per year — pointing to the day when the city will run out of water. Sardar Riaz A. Khan, former director of Pakistan’s Arid Zone Research Institute in Quetta, reports that six of Balochistan’s seven basins have exhausted their groundwater supplies, leaving their irrigated lands barren.

In a World Bank study, water expert John Briscoe says: “Pakistan is already one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, a situation which is going to degrade into outright water scarcity due to high population growth.” He then notes that “the survival of a modern and growing Pakistan is threatened by water.”

In Mexico — home to a population of 122 million that is projected to reach 156 million by 2050 — the demand for water is outstripping supply. Mexico City’s water problems are well known. Rural areas are also suffering. In the agricultural state of Guanajuato, the water table is falling by 6 feet or more a year. In the northwestern wheat-growing state of Sonora, farmers once pumped water from the Hermosillo aquifer at a depth of 40 feet. Today they pump from over 400 feet. Mexico may be near peak water use. Peak grain may be imminent.

In addition to these small and midsize countries, aquifer depletion now also threatens harvests in the big three grain producers — China, India, and the United States — that together produce half of the world’s grain. The question is not whether water shortages will affect future harvests in these countries, but rather when they will do so.

Among the big three, dependence on irrigation varies widely. Some four fifths of China’s grain harvest comes from irrigated land, most of it drawing on surface water, principally the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. For India, three fifths of its grain is irrigated, mostly with groundwater. For the United States, only one fifth of the harvest is from irrigated land. The bulk of the grain crop is rain-fed, produced in the highly productive Midwestern Corn Belt where there is little or no irrigation.

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the United States as the world’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in 2001 indicated that the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, was 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 survey reported that under Hebei Province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer was dropping nearly 10 feet per year. Around some cities in the province, it was falling twice as fast. He Qingcheng, head of the groundwater monitoring team, notes that as the deep aquifer is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve — its only safety cushion.

In 2010, He Qingcheng reported that Beijing was drilling down 1,000 feet to reach an aquifer, five times deeper than 20 years ago. His concerns are mirrored in the unusually strong language of a World Bank report on China’s water situation that foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.

As serious as water shortages are in China, they are even more alarming in India, where the margin between food consumption and survival is so precarious. In India, whose population is growing by 15 million per year, irrigation depends heavily on underground water. And since there are no restrictions on well drilling, farmers have drilled more than 27 million irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water.

In this global epicenter of well drilling, pumps powered by heavily subsidized electricity are dropping water tables at an alarming rate. Among the states most affected are Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat in the north and Tamil Nadu in the south. In North Gujarat the water table is falling by 20 feet per year. In Tamil Nadu, a state of 72 million people, water tables are falling everywhere. Kuppannan Palanisami of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University noted in 2004 that 95 percent of the wells owned by small farmers have dried up, reducing the irrigated area in the state by half over the preceding decade.

India’s grain harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but in part for the wrong reason, namely massive overpumping. A World Bank study estimates that 15 percent of India’s food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million Indians are now fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water. As early as 2004, Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist that “half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer.”

As India’s water tables fall, larger farmers are using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water, going as deep as 1,000 feet in some locations. In communities where underground water sources have dried up entirely, all agriculture is now rain-fed and drinking water must be trucked in. Tushaar Shah of the International Water Management Institute says of India’s water situation: “When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India.”

In the United States, farmers are over-pumping in the Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. In these states, irrigation has not only raised wheat yields but it has also enabled a shift from wheat to corn, a much higher-yielding crop. Kansas, for example, long known as the leading wheat state, now produces more corn than wheat.

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.

In Texas, a large grain and cattle state, whose northern part overlies the shallow end of the Ogallala, irrigated grain area peaked in 1975. Since then it has shrunk by two thirds, with the most precipitous drop in recent years. In Kansas the peak came in 1982 and irrigated grain area has since fallen 41 percent. Nebraska, now also a leading corn-producing state, saw its irrigated area peak most recently, in 2007. Even though aquifer depletion is reducing grain output in several key states, it is not yet sufficient to reduce the overall U.S. grain harvest, the bulk of which is produced in the rain-fed Midwestern Corn Belt.

At the international level, water conflicts, such as the one in the Nile river basin between Egypt and the upstream countries, make the news. But within countries it is the competition for water between cities and farms that preoccupies political leaders. Indeed, in many countries farmers now face not only a shrinking water supply as aquifers are pumped dry, but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply.

In large areas of the United States, such as the southern Great Plains and the Southwest, virtually all water is now spoken for. The growing water needs of major cities and thousands of small towns often can be satisfied only by taking water from agriculture. As the value of water rises, more farmers are selling their irrigation rights to cities, letting their land dry up. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a new sale. Half or more of all sales are by individual farmers or their irrigation districts to cities and municipalities.

In the largest farm-to-city water transfer in U.S. history, farmers in California’s highly productive Imperial Valley agreed in 2003 to send San Diego County enough water to meet the household needs of close to one million people each year. The agreement spans 45 years. This could reduce food production in the Imperial Valley, a huge vegetable garden not only for California, but for countless other markets as well. Writing from the area in the New York Times, Felicity Barringer notes that many fear that “a century after Colorado River water allowed this land to be a cornucopia, unfettered urban water transfers could turn it back into a desert.”

Colorado, with a fast-growing population, has one of the world’s most active water markets. Cities and towns of all sizes are buying irrigation water rights from farmers and ranchers. In the Arkansas river basin, which occupies the southeastern quarter of the state, Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver) have already bought water rights to one third of the basin’s farmland. Aurora has purchased rights to water that was once used to irrigate 19,000 acres of cropland in the Arkansas valley. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 400,000 acres of farmland dried up statewide between 2000 and 2005.

Colorado is not alone in losing irrigation water. Farmers in rural India are also losing their irrigation water to cities. This is strikingly evident in Chennai (formerly Madras), a city of 9 million on the east coast. As a result of the city government’s inability to supply water to many of its people, a thriving tank-truck industry has emerged that buys water from nearby farmers and hauls it to the city’s thirsty residents.

For farmers near cities, the market price of water typically far exceeds the value of the crops they can produce with it. Unfortunately the 13,000 privately owned tank trucks hauling water to Chennai are mining the region’s underground water resources. As water tables fall, eventually even the deeper wells will go dry, depriving rural communities of both their food supply and their livelihood.

In the competition for water between farmers on the one hand and cities and industries on the other, farmers always lose. The economics do not favor agriculture. In countries such as China, where industrial development and the jobs associated with it are an overriding national economic goal, agriculture is becoming the residual claimant on the water supply.

Where virtually all water has been claimed, cities can typically get more water only by taking it from irrigation. Countries then import grain to offset the loss of irrigated grain production. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. Thus trading in grain futures is, in a sense, trading in water futures. To the extent that there is a world water market, it is embodied in the world grain market.

We can now see how overpumping, whether in the Middle East or the U.S. Great Plains, can lead to aquifer depletion and shrinking grain harvests. In short, peak water can lead to peak grain. For some countries this is no longer merely a theoretical possibility. It is a reality.

Thus far, aquifer depletion has translated into shrinking harvests only in smaller countries in the Middle East. When we look at middle-sized countries such as Iran, Mexico, and Pakistan, with tightening water supplies, we see that Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind. In Mexico, the water supply may have already peaked. With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest.

In summarizing prospects for the three big grain producers — the United States, China, and India — we see sharp contrasts. In the United States, the irrigated grainland is starting to shrink largely as a result of depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, making it more difficult to rapidly increase overall grain production.

China, with four fifths of its grain harvest coming from irrigated land, relies heavily on irrigation, but it is largely river water. A notable exception to this is the all-important North China Plain which relies heavily on underground water. With tight water supplies in northern China and with cities claiming more irrigation water, the shrinking water supply will likely reduce the harvest in some local situations. And before long it could more than offset production gains, leading to an absolute decline in China’s grain harvest.

Of the big three countries, the one most vulnerable to overpumping is India. Three fifths of its grain harvest comes from irrigated land. And since only a minor share of its irrigation water comes from rivers, India is overwhelmingly dependent on underground water. Its millions of wells, each powered with a diesel engine or electric motor, are dropping water tables at an alarming rate. Accurate data are hard to come by, but India may have already passed peak water. The question is, will peak water be followed by peak grain or is there enough unrealized technological potential remaining to raise yields enough to offset any imminent losses from wells going dry?

The world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies. There is a large area of land that could produce food if water were available.

Water scarcity is not our only challenge. Just as harvests are shrinking in some countries because of aquifer depletion, they are shrinking in other countries because of soil erosion. Among the more dramatic examples are Mongolia and Lesotho, which have each seen their grain area shrink as a result of soil erosion. And as a result of overplowing and overgrazing, two huge new dust bowls are forming in the world today, one in northwest China and the other in the Sahelian region of Africa. These giant dust bowls dwarf the U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The bottom line is that water constraints — augmented by soil erosion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, a plateauing of yields in major producing areas, and climate change — are making it more difficult to expand world food production. The question raised is this: Is it conceivable that the negative influences on future food production could one day offset the positive ones, leading to a cessation in the world grain harvest?

11 Responses to “Peak Water: What Happens When the Wells Go Dry?”

  1. Scott Reimers

    I live in a desert area where we’ve been building a water management plan for 30 years. We limit well drilling and even pump water into aquifers to keep them healthy. In fact we use our aquifers as intentional water storage by pumping in water during the wet seasons and drawing it out during dry ones. Our regions water plan includes meeting the water needs of the worst drought on record plus 50% without tapping our aquifers (below the extra “stored” water)

    I’m incredibly proud to be in a community with so much foresight in this area, but as awesome as that is, our climate is not conducive to most commercial crops. I’ve looked toward permaculture about what it would take to feed my family if the water challenges progressed to the point of food scarcity.

    In the end I have plans and evidence they might work… and a complete emotional avoidance of the issue of quality of life if I had to use them…

    I love my life. I love getting to eat the vast selection of foods available to me now from so many parts of the world. I recognize that I am contributing to the problem everytime I do so, but I just can’t convince myself that doing anything more than “just in case” preparations is a good life choice. I see people on this website happy to be living “carbon neutral or household footprint” lives and I’m just not there.

    I could try to defend my “greencred”, but the fact of the matter is I’m incredibly common in modern society… I’m a GILA monster. Good Intentions Little Action. I want to be sustainable, but I don’t want to give up my job, my faith or my entertainment.

    I see so much un-necessary waste in the structure of my culture; low hanging fruit that we could pick by simply assigning these changes value. Ironically the poster boys/girls of the permaculture movements seem to create lives with these inefficiencies built in. Most permies I know choose to build small homesteads like 1800′s farms rather than forming larger communities with lots of people to take advantage of economies of scale ensuring minimum necessary travel and low personal cost for daily maintenance, composting, food & energy production and waste recycling.

    Most people are GILA monsters and there are few good options for us. I’m not willing to become a farmer from 100 years ago unless I absolutely have to, but I would gladly be who I am, living in an intentional community, helping with chores, plantings and harvests during peak times and sitting on my laptop creating websites, writing and whatnot the rest of the time.

    What does this have to do with a post on water?

    People will not change unless they want to. Our water will continue to be used in these absurd ways because there is a LOT of good intention tied with unwillingness to go without so that someone else can take what you don’t. Oil and water are to our society what trees were on Easter Island.

    History has shown an extreme willingness to sacrifice if the whole community is sacrificing together (WW1 America, WW1+WW2 Germany and UK). However, VERY few people will stop over-consuming if they feel they are “missing out” on something other people still have, because of mere “ideals.”

    The problem is not how to grow your own food, build a composter, rocket stove, chicken coop or all of these other “figure out how to survive/thrive on your own farm.” The problem is: How do we implement changes to the majority of persons lives in order to align our regional, national and worldwide culture closer and closer to sustainablity without people thinking they are sacrificing the lifestyles they enjoy so that other people can squander those same resources instead.

    If we find solutions to that problem, our challenges with oil, water, food and equality will improve at exponential rates and we could have a sustainable culture living a high quality of life within my Daughters lifetime.

    Reply
  2. Gloria Cole

    Wow! I am so impressed with this article and the previous comment.

    I am reminded of the line from the old song: Where Have all the Flowers Gone? “When will they ever learn?”

    How will we ever learn, that is the question. All our lives and those of our children are in jeopardy.

    But, I wonder if trees might not be the solution–the trees we have cut, thinking they needed to be gone to make room for people.

    Many years ago I was working on an archeological project in north Alabama (USA). The project was to recover the archeological remains for an area within the drainage of the Tennessee River. To build a reservoir, TVA (The Tennessee Valley Authority) had confiscated the proposed construction area. Trees and farm sites were bulldozed in preparation for the reservoir construction.

    Our crew arranged to stay at one of the confiscated farm sites for the duration of our project. The displaced owner said, we have a new well, you will find this a wonderful place to stay.

    Within a few weeks after our crew moved in, the well went dry.
    Our supervisor hired a well digger to extend the depth of the well. We found out from this man that all the wells in the confiscated area were going dry.

    The wells were going dry because the trees hold the level of the groundwater. When the trees were bulldozed, the level of the ground water receded below the level of the wells.

    So Im wondering if ground water depletion might not be reversible if the trees/forests could be restored.

    Reply
  3. Rosie

    This wonderful article and Scott and Gloria’s comments are making me feel incredibly depressed and powerless. I’m living in the Indian desert where the only ambition, it seems, is to buy some land, put down a tube well and use the water, together with a whole heap of chemicals to grow fantastic lush crops, sell them to a dealer and burn the field residues. How, how, how can I even start to tell people it is better to go the other way? Put a fence around your small area to keep the free range grazing animals off, construct swales to catch the rain, mulch heavily to preserve the water in the soil and just grow your own food. Both Gloria and Scott are right. How can you convince people to keep the trees? they are in the way of progress. How can you ask poor people not to try to get rich when it looks so easy, when everybody else is doing it?

    Reply
  4. linnie lambrechtsen

    Yes… what a depressing article, indeed. I will pass it onto all my CSG-fighting warrior friends as more fuel for our cause against that particular insanity!

    Rosie, I hear you, people most often prefer the easy way out, and, yes, how do you ask poor people to watch others getting wealthy without adopting that path themselves?

    I am on 30 fertile acres and still have done only the smallest amount towards self-sufficiency. We’ve made a definite start, regenerating the land, and fruit trees planted long ago now bear fruit… but we can do very much better. this site reminds me of that, and the email updates send me scurrying out to weed that patch and get it ready for replanting, etc.

    I remember two things which inspired me very much; one was the passionate planting of many edible species at my best buddy’s place, decades ago, which made me drool with longing, and helped decide me to relocate and start planting my own food (not that one needs to relocate, as this worthy website makes clear.) The other was watching Bill Mollison’s “global gardener DVD” (for memory), where he filmed an Indian gentleman doing just that very swale thing, and, in what seemed a remarkably short time, making magic, against the odds.

    I think that seeing the harvest of your efforts, with their own eyes, may make a huge difference to people. It is true that fool’s gold speaks with an over loud voice, but food, in front of one’s eyes, must surely also speak to a hungry belly?

    Many blessings to you.

    Reply
  5. donald mcpherson

    I am responding to Scott’s comment in particular, but in the context of the actual article written by Lester Brown. I make this point because as I was reading Scott’s long comment I realized that Scott’s approach was emblematic of some part of the problem. It’s like going on a first date and instead of engaging with the other person you stick to what seems comfortable: talking about yourself. I live in Berkeley, CA with all of its privileges it’s good intentions and it’s wasteful obliviousness. Consider protein. Cow eating is not cool. Eating tempeh is cool (I make my own so I must be cool too.) but if you buy it in a store is it cool that it is manufactured in a factory across the state, using grains grown who knows where, with water derived from some unknown place? As a hope and as a snare complexity reigns in the kingdom of diminishing everything. Isn’t that the issue here? We have no control over the “big picture” so we need to focus on the really tiny local. This is my roundabout way of disagreeing with Scott’s comment, cutnpasted below:

    “The problem is not how to grow your own food, build a composter, rocket stove, chicken coop or all of these other “figure out how to survive/thrive on your own farm.” The problem is: How do we implement changes to the majority of persons lives in order to align our regional, national and worldwide culture closer and closer to sustainablity without people thinking they are sacrificing the lifestyles they enjoy so that other people can squander those same resources instead.”

    I think that the list of “not how to’s” is exactly what we need to do, but in our own little seemingly meaningless way in the suburbs, the city center, the farm. This is how revolutions start and more importantly how conscience behavior morphs out of inaction and impotency. We don’t implement changes to the majority of persons lives, we just seem to all finally get it and change, because that is how it works. I would rather be the change and set an example and talk it up and be supportive of the change and do it all out in the open. Making major social changes “without people thinking they are sacrificing the lifestyles they enjoy” doesn’t seem very open to me. I say we all lay out the situation as plainly as we can, using Lester Brown as an example of how to explain complexity without coming across as detached. We lay it out to friends and strangers alike, but to be effective you have to be doing the tiny little things that Scott dismisses.
    I am not trying to rag on Scott, but this is a subtle and important detail. Maybe my viewpoint is less effective because it is slow, but I think it is really how it works.

    Reply
  6. Glenn

    Great article. I have long since lost the will to ‘persuade’ other folk of anything. It is not my place to do so, hardly ever works, is emotionally draining, and at time is disempowering to assume we/I know what is best for others. The answer is always’it depends’ and is a matter of perspective.

    IMJ it is far better to simply go about your business, doing what you can, in your little circle of influence, and at the same time, leaving the door wide open for others to take a lookie:-)

    In reality, the numbers coming out on water scarcity are like time bombs waiting to go off. I think history would probably give us a fair idea as to how this may play out.

    Peace and good bowel movements,

    p.s. As an after thought, the literature coming out these days doesn’t even support a grain based diet. Thus, as already mentioned, maybe it’s time more of us tried our hand at horticulture. Tree, tree and more trees.

    I think we also need to relearn how to nurture our emotional wellbeing, thus becoming more reslient by nature. Maybe linking up with other like minded folk, you know the old way face to face!?

    Big thanks again for this somewhat scary article.

    Reply
  7. Scott Jackson

    Great article. I was expecting to see some mention of Argentina, which is where I live. Argentina is one of the “Big Five” soy producers, and the results of this form of monocropping (with its concurrent deforestation, unsustainable irrigation, application of toxic pesticides, etc…) is also turning huge swathes of Argentina into good old fashion barren desert. Why? So the minority (landholding wealthy) can sell GM soy to china’s pig farmers. Many everyday Argentines like to take some kind of token pride in the soy-based GDP of their country, but the reality is the soy farmers are devastating the future and present prospects of the entire country and the consequences in terms of water are already here and getting worse.

    In the province of Córdoba the people are left to pick up the tab in the form of drought, higher food prices and dependence on tanker-trucks which supply houses in many regions with drinking water. Right now in Córdoba the price of bread and many other foods are becoming hyper-inflated because of failed harvests (drought) and the decreasing production of wheat for local consumption, and of course the rising costs of petroleum, etc. Lots of “peaks” all it once.

    There are towns near where I live where the municipal water is perpetually intermittent, and thus the only immediate option for most people is to pay for the trucked-in water to fill their tanks. This has resulted in a situation where their monthly water bill is equal to or greater than their rent or mortgage payment!

    Anyway, it’s obvious that massive reforestation has to occur, along with policy changes, public education, and of course, permaculture design to provide sustainable strategies at all scales.

    I teach Urban Permaculture here in the city of Córdoba, and this is something that we are talking about and doing (looking at the city’s vast roof area as a huge collection of water-catchment infrastructure, and also doing inter-urban reforestation to promote and regenerate micro-regional water cycles). It’s not easy, though, when entire generations have been brought up totally unaware of the consequences of rampant growth and depletion of natural resources. Most adults are already hard-wired into whatever delusions they’ve been brought up to believe. We need to work with the kids, so that they can teach their parents.

    Thanks again for the article. Keep up the good work and the good comments. Let’s do the work.

    Reply
  8. Scott Reimers

    Donald,

    I’m hearing you say that you feel the solution is to make the very same changes in our personal lives that it sounded like I was dismissing?

    Believe it or not I agree. I do strongly believe that it is better for each person to make these changes. I wasn’t saying that these solutions are a waste of time. I was saying that the key problem facing us as a western culture is the challenge of motivation. How do we maintain motivation and willingness to sacrifice when the people around us just seem to increase their waste as a result?

    I have had this happen with my refrigerator. I had roomates and we purchased snacks. I am the kind of person who will slowly consume a small amount of each “treat” so that I don’t run out of it before the next trip to the store. They didn’t do that. They’d eat what they wanted, when they wanted to.

    After a couple times of me getting little to none of the treats, I automatically started to join them on the “snack-fest.” When I did that THEY started feeling that I was taking their share of the snacks. It got so that grocery day was a disgusting orgy of consumption followed by 2 weeks of snack famine!

    In the end our households parted ways, and my current household honors limitations on our snacking. My roomates all agree to limit what we use and none of us feel we are missing out. In fact our whole household consumes 1/10th of the junk food of the old one and we consistently still have snacks in the fridge as we’re making the shopping list.

    This exact situation is the dynamic happening worldwide as a lack of consistent conservation agreements are leading everyone into an orgy of wasteful consumption of our oil, water, environmental capital and anything else that isn’t nailed down. All due to a fear of “missing out.”

    I truly respect and honor the people who make the sacrifice to consume less, be more self-sufficient and improve our ecology. I think that is the future and is a necessary behavior. I also admit that I’m not enlightened enough to be willing to sacrifice to live what I consider to be a lower quality of life when my peers aren’t doing so.

    I’ve seen the problem and I’ve seen only TWO solutions. One solution I saw was to make and keep consumption limits equally. Another was to go without and let everyone else have all the goodies. I didn’t like the second in my household, and I’m doing the EXACT SAME THING in regards to my lifestyle. I recognize that I’m in the middle of the “I want mine before it’s all gone” mindset, but I don’t see a good solution being offered. However, I believe other solutions exist if we can find them.

    I’m hoping that by sharing my perspective on the problem, we may shift our focus toward finding solutions to this problem in our local regions and our local consumption patterns. Luckily unlike oil, water is regional. Each region can make their own agreements concerning water… just like the Truckee Meadows Water Authority did. They are buying up ALL water rights as fast as they can and they are working to ensure an equal price for all users based on availability and tiers of consumption.

    Everyone gets a basic amount of water very cheap and the more you use the more you have to pay per gallon. If you want to use more than your “fair share” you’re going to pay a LOT and subsidize everyone else’s share. That structure feels fair and I’m ok with the heavy users lowering my costs for my low usage.

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  9. Scott Reimers

    wow… writing that last article about the regional nature of water, I just realized one solution to absurd worldwide consumption of oil would be oil protectionism.

    If a couple producer countries became convinced that oil is a precious resource that we need to horde instead of selling, it would trigger a chain reaction where each region and country would start to horde it as well. The price would spike incredibly, and the economy would shatter because consumption patterns would disconnect from the cycle of “getting my share while it’s good.”

    If we were smart enough to do that now while it’s still cheap, it might be that “shared sacrifice” I was mentioning that would lead us to conserve these resources for a few generations.

    When there is plenty and it is socially acceptable to waste, rich and powerful people can get away with absurd things, but as soon as a culture decides that it isn’t ok to waste that resource, the rich and powerful become constrained due to the monitoring behavior of the masses.

    I can see how this could apply to oil since we already see it as a valuable resource. I only wish we could find a way to apply it to things like the massive Environmental Damage of the Soy Farming in Argentina that Mr. Jackson mentioned.

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  10. Jackie Smith

    I live in the Palm Spring CA desert where most everyone expects to see green and lush gardens. There are several thousand swimming pools plus, water falls and fountains. We sit on an aquafer that cannot be measured and we are taking more water out than is going back in. One water district is selling their water to Nestles. This Coachella Valley is home to many acres of farming and most of that water is brought in from the Colorado River. Now that the housing market is turning around I’ll bet the builders will be lining up to start huge complexes of homes.
    Jackie Smith

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  11. Rosie

    Where I live, in Jaisalmer city in the Indian desert the water supply comes through the pipes in the street for 2 hours every second day. In that time you fill your storage tank, wash your floors and whatever else you want to do. The rest of the time the pipes are dry. My underground tank fills automatically so I always have plenty of water but some of my neighbours don’t have tanks. They come to the outlets in the street with their buckets and take water home by carrying it on their heads then they store it there for two days and use it frugally until the water comes again.

    This is desert, water is precious. And yet there are no shut-off taps on the pipes. When water is flowing it is free for anyone to take but if no-one wants it it just flows away down the gutter. Good, clean drinking water babbling away over the cobblestones, hundreds of gallons at a time. Nobody cares apparently,except me.

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