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The State of the Planet: Vanishing Wetlands

Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute

More than 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 for water.

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.

What happens 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, no.

It’s 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 ways.

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 settlements.

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

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 landscape.

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

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 lives.

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.



Read more about The State of the Planet:
Introduction | Population | Fresh Water | Wetlands | Global Warming | Ecosystems


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Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization | State of the Planet's Oceans | State of the Ocean's Animals
State of the Planet's Wildlife | The State of the Planet | Future Conditional | On the Brink | Hot Zones
Seas of Grass | Land of Plenty, Land of Want | Urban Explosion | Rivers of Destiny

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