POINTS OF VIEW:
Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute
half the world’s people now live in
countries where water tables are falling and wells are
going dry. In many ways I think it’s the most underestimated
resource issue in the world. In recent months we’ve
been hearing a lot about, world oil prices, the depletion
of oil reserves and trying to estimate when world oil
production will peak and turn downward as reserves are
depleted. This is obviously important but it’s
not as important as the depletion of underground water
resources. We’d lived for millions of years without
oil. We would live only a matter of days without water.
There are substitutes for oil. There are no substitutes
In this competition farmers almost always lose. For
example, if you have 1,000 tons of water in China, you
can use that to produce one ton of wheat, which is worth
at most $200, or, you can use that 1,000 tons of water
to expand industrial output by $14,000, or seventy times
as much. If your goal is economic growth and job creation
you do not use scarce water to produce wheat.
to water resources is going to shape our future in
ways that I don’t
think we can now easily imagine.
Rajul Pandya-Lorch, International
Food Policy Research Institute
The current status of global
food production is relatively good. You look at the population
increase that has taken place in the last three decades,
despite the addition of almost three billion people we
have actually increased the available food per person,
by almost 20%. Do we have enough food to feed the world?
Yes. Does everybody have access to that food? Unfortunately,
not just a question of increasing food production or
increasing production on the farm. It is getting that
production out to the people and in cost effective
The world's wetlands are another casualty in the global competition
for water. Fed by the seasonal flow of streams and rivers, this
is a rich habitat for thousands of species of plants and animals
exists within it's own sense of time and rhythm. Once covering
12 percent of the planet's land area, today half the world's
wetlands are gone. They are victims of rivers running dry or
their conversion to farmland or human settlements.
Gone are irreplaceable breeding grounds for plants and animals.
Gone are aquatic ecosystems that cleansed a river’s water.
Gone are woodlands that eased the burden of floods. Little more
than a decade ago, the loss of wetlands in the United States
resulted in a catastrophic flood.
Once covering 12 percent of the planet's land
area, today half the world's wetlands are gone. They are victims
of rivers running dry or their conversion to farmland or human
It happened when a series of storms stalled over the upper Mississippi
River basin. For months the rains kept coming. Though the weather
pattern was unusually severe, the actual amount of rainfall along
the Mississippi hasn't changed for thousands of years. What did
change was the loss of more than ninety percent of the floodplain
wetlands that once absorbed the seasonal high waters of the Mississippi.
As the waters began to rise, riverside communities, in a final
act of desperation, reinforced their lines of defense. But in
the end the Mississippi, fed by thousands of surging streams
and rivers, crashed through levee after levee. Without the protection
of the Mississippi's original wetland ecosystem, the river won.
In addition to the world’s wetlands there's another water
resource under siege. To meet the needs of a thirsty planet,
aquifers are being pumped out faster than nature's ability to
replenish them. But these natural underground reservoirs hold
more than 30 percent of the world's supply of fresh water. This
does not bode well for those living in the less developed countries
where aquifers are often the only source of unpolluted water.
Rice farm in Vietnam
But the depletion of underground water resources is not limited
to poorer countries. Fly over the prairies of the United States
and you'll see thousands of dark circles etched into the desert
Can we provide enough food to satisfy the needs
of our children and grandchildren?
These circles are cultivated land irrigated with water pumped
from the largest aquifer in the world, a gift left behind by
melting glaciers during the last ice age. Called the Ogallala
aquifer, it supplies water to 25 percent of the country’s
irrigated land. It helped make the Great Plains the breadbasket
of the world. During the time of harvest, farmers work round
the clock. In return, they manage to produce more than a third
of the world's grain exports. But in a sense, farmers are also
exporting our country's only irreplaceable source of water. It's
not an easy trade-off.
Each year irrigated farming draws almost a foot and half of
water from this ancient aquifer while nature puts back in the
form of rain less than half an inch. In the past fifty years
the Ogallala aquifer has lost over a third of it volume. This
has farmers worried – they just don't know how long the
water will last. The only thing they're sure of is that if things
don’t change the aquifer will ultimately run dry.
This raises another question of great concern for the state
of the planet. Can we provide enough food to satisfy the needs
of our children and grandchildren?
Food Market in Can Tho, Vietnam
If you were to visit the food markets of the world – one
thing would be immediately apparent. More food is available to
more people than ever before. It's a testament to the ingenuity
of the world's farmers, ranchers and fishermen. But, despite
the global abundance of food, more than 800 million people go
hungry each day.
Compounding the problem, hunger frequently leads to a cycle
of environmental decline. Desperation can leave the land over-cultivated
and over-grazed. Though feeding the poor remains a pressing challenge,
much can be learned from the world's most populous country.
China is a place where past and future intersect. Steeped in
ancient cultures and deeply held traditions – this is also
a country of newly found wealth. It’s hard to believe that
only four decades ago famine claimed a staggering 30 million
Today the nightmare of extreme hunger is long gone. Local markets
overflow with fresh produce and once unimaginable luxuries like
milk, eggs, and meat. The abundance of food is both a monument
to the country’s economic boom and a glimmer of hope to
the poorest countries of the world.
The Yangtze River Delta contains China’s most fertile
soil. On this flat, watery landscape, every available acre of
land is under cultivation. The results are remarkable. In a country
of over a billion and a quarter people, very few go hungry. Yet
China's agricultural success does not come cheaply and it is
at the center of fierce competition for water and land between
farmers and developers.
Less than a decade ago these streets were surrounded by farms.
They are now home to dozens of small and medium-sized industrial
enterprises. This garment factory was once farmland. Instead
of 3 tons of rice, the yearly harvest is 120,000 pairs of trousers.
Almost every worker was lured off the farm. And their farming
skills, honed year after year, are disappearing along with China’s
most productive land.
Despite these problems, China has found ways to feed its population.
The challenge for the poorer countries of the world is to somehow
duplicate that achievement. It won’t be easy, especially
when an even greater threat to the state of the planet may be
looming on the horizon.