Urgent measures needed if global water poverty and famine to be avoided

Governments must stabilise population growth and improve the efficient use of water if they are to prevent the world's growing population falling victim to water poverty and possibly famine.

Unless governments in the world’s many water-short countries act soon, current water shortages may soon become food shortages, the chairman of the Worldwatch Institute, Lester Brown has warned.

As the growing number of water-short countries, including population giants China and India increasingly chose to divert water supplies to industry, they are forced to import ever greater amounts of grain. The risk, according to Brown is that these rising grain import needs could overwhelm the exportable supply in food surplus countries, such as the US, Canada, and Australia. This in turn could destabilise world grain markets.

“The world must now turn to raising water productivity,” says Brown. “The first step toward this goal is to eliminate the water subsidies that foster inefficiency. The second step is to raise the price of water to reflect its cost. Shifting to more water-efficient technologies, more water-efficient crops, and more water-efficient forms of animal protein offer a huge potential for raising water productivity. These shifts will move faster if the price of water more closely reflects its value.”

And, says Brown, future wars in the Middle East may actually be fought in the grain markets rather than over water supplies, as is often predicted. The countries that continue to successfully feed their populations will be the ones that can afford to buy grain, Brown claims.

Even with today’s six billion people, the world has a huge water deficit, Brown says. Worldwatch has calculated that 480 million of the world’s 6 billion people are being fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water.

What’s more, in the increasingly intense competition for water among sectors, agriculture almost always loses. For example, the 1,000 tons of water used in India to produce 1 ton of wheat, worth perhaps US$200, can also be used to expand industrial output by easily $10,000.

The world’s fastest growing grain import market is North Africa and the Middle East, Brown says. Virtually every country in this region is simultaneously experiencing water shortages and rapid population growth. “It is now often said that future wars in the region will more likely be fought over water than oil,” says Brown. “Perhaps, but given the difficulty in winning a water war, the competition for water seems more likely to take place in world grain markets. The countries that will ‘win’ in this competition will be those that are financially strongest, not those that are militarily strongest.

“The world water deficit grows larger with each year, making it potentially more difficult to manage. If we decided abruptly to stabilise water tables everywhere by simply pumping less water, the world grain harvest would fall by some 160 million tons, or eight percent, and grain prices would go off the top of the chart. If the deficit continues to widen, the eventual adjustment will be even greater.”

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