Peak Water and Food Scarcity
Although many analysts are concerned about the depletion of oil resources, the depletion of underground water resources poses a far greater threat to our future. While there are substitutes for oil, there are none for water. Indeed, modern humans lived a long time without oil, but we would live for only a matter of days without water.
Not only are there no substitutes for water, but the world needs vast amounts of it to produce food. As adults, each of us drinks nearly 4 liters of water a day in one form or another. But it takes 2,000 liters of water—500 times as much—to produce the food we consume each day. 1
Since food is such an extraordinarily water-intensive product, it comes as no surprise that 70 percent of world water use is for irrigation. Although it is now widely accepted that the world is facing severe water shortages, not everyone realizes that a future of water shortages will also be a future of food shortages. 2
The use of irrigation to expand food production goes back some 6,000 years. Indeed, the development of irrigation using water from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers set the stage for the emergence of the Sumerian civilization, and it was the Nile that gave birth to ancient Egypt. 3
Throughout most of history, irrigation spread rather slowly. But in the latter half of the twentieth century it underwent a rapid expansion. In 1950, there were some 250 million acres of irrigated land in the world. By 2000, the figure had nearly tripled to roughly 700 million acres. After these several decades of rapid increase, however, the growth in irrigated area has slowed dramatically since the turn of the century, expanding only 9 percent from 2000 to 2009. Given that governments are much more likely to report increases than decreases, the recent net growth in irrigated area may be even smaller. This dramatic loss of momentum in irrigation expansion, coupled with the aquifer depletion that is already reducing irrigated area in some countries, suggests that peak water may now be on our doorstep. 4
The trend in irrigated land area per person is even less promising. For the last half-century, the irrigated area has been expanding—but not as fast as population. As a result, the irrigated area per person today is 10 percent less than it was in 1960. With so many aquifers being depleted and more and more irrigation wells going dry, this shrinkage in irrigated area per person is likely not only to continue but to accelerate in the years ahead. 5
Roughly 40 percent of the world grain harvest is grown on irrigated land. The rest is rainfed. Among the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States—the role of irrigation varies widely. In China, four fifths of the grain harvest comes from irrigated land. For India it is three fifths, and for the United States, only one fifth. Asia, where rice is the staple food, totally dominates the world irrigated area. 6
Farmers use both surface and underground water for irrigation. Surface water is typically stored behind dams on rivers and then channeled onto the land through a network of irrigation canals. Historically, and notably from 1950 until 1975, when most of the world’s large dams were built, this was the main source of growth in world irrigated area. During the 1970s, however, as the sites for new dams diminished, attention shifted from building dams to drilling wells for access to underground water. 7
Most underground water comes from aquifers that are regularly replenished with rainfall; these can be pumped indefinitely as long as water extraction does not exceed recharge. A small minority of aquifers are fossil aquifers, however, containing water put there eons ago. Since these do not recharge, irrigation ends once they are pumped dry. Among the more prominent fossil aquifers are the Ogallala underlying the U.S. Great Plains, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain, and the Saudi aquifers. 8
Given a choice, farmers generally prefer having their own wells because it enables them to control the timing and amount of water delivered with a precision that is not possible with large, centrally managed canal irrigation systems. Pumps let them apply water precisely when the crop needs it, thus achieving higher yields than with large-scale, river-based irrigation systems. Forty percent of world irrigated area is now dependent on underground water. As world demand for grain has climbed, farmers have drilled more and more irrigation wells with little concern for how many the local aquifers could support. As a result, water tables are falling and millions of irrigation wells are either going dry or are on the verge of doing so. 9
As groundwater use for irrigation expands, so does the grain harvest. But if the pumping surpasses the sustainable yield of the aquifer, aquifers are depleted. When this happens, the rate of irrigation pumping is necessarily reduced to the aquifer’s natural rate of recharge. At this point, grain production declines too.
The resulting water-based “food bubbles,” which create a short-term false sense of security, can now be found in some 18 countries that contain more than half the world’s people. In these countries, food is being produced by drawing down water reserves. This group includes China, India, and the United States. 10 (See Table 6–1.) More