Water Conflicts Loom as Supplies Tighten; Food Security Threatened, Ecosystems in Decline

6:00 PM EST
Saturday, September 14, 1996


Spreading water scarcity is contributing to food insecurity and heightened competition for water both within and between countries, according to global data detailed in a new report from Worldwatch Institute. As world population expands by 2.6 billion over the next 30 years, and as consumption spirals upward, water problems are bound to intensify. By 2025 -- just a generation away -- 40 percent of the world's people, more than 3 billion in all, may be living in countries experiencing water stress or chronic water scarcity, notes Dividing the Waters: Food Security, Ecosystem Health, and the New Politics of Scarcity.

"Political leaders are vastly underestimating the influence of water scarcity on food production, natural systems, and regional peace and stability," says author Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts, and a Senior Fellow of Worldwatch Institute. "As a result, some unpleasant surprises may lie in store."

Food security is at risk because the amount of fresh water that can sustainably be supplied to farmers is nearing its limits, even as 87 million more people are added to the planet each year. The report notes that:

  • Millions of tons of each year's grain supply are grown by depleting groundwater. Water tables are dropping a meter or more each year beneath a large area of irrigated farmland in north China; they are falling 20 centimeters a year across two-thirds of India's Punjab, the nation's breadbasket.

  • World irrigated area, which accounts for 16 percent of total cropland area but yields about 40 percent of the world's food, is no longer spreading faster than population: per capita irrigated area peaked in 1979 and has declined by 7 percent since then.

  • With the urban population projected to double to 5 billion by 2025, pressure is mounting to shift water from farms to expanding cities.
"No one has tallied the potential effect on future food production of the progressive shift of water from agriculture to cities, combined with groundwater overpumping, aquifer depletion, and the other forms of unsustainable water use," Postel said. "It takes 1,000 tons of water to grow 1 ton of grain. Where the water to meet future food needs is to come from on a sustainable basis is not obvious."

At the same time, rivers, lakes, and wetlands -- along with the life they support -- are declining in health because large dams and river diversions have destroyed their vital ecological functions. The number of large dams has climbed from 5,000 in 1950 to 38,000 today, and thousands of kilometers of canals divert water from natural systems to farms and cities. Among the consequences:

  • Many river deltas and coastal estuaries are losing their capacity to support fisheries because of the diminished flow of fresh water and nutrients to the sea.

  • The lower reaches of China's Yellow River have gone dry for an average of 70 days a year in each of the last 10 years; in 1995, the river was dry for 122 days.

  • Central Asia's Aral Sea has lost half its area and three-fourths of its volume because of excessive river diversions for cotton production. 20 out of 24 fish species have disappeared, along with a fish catch that once totaled 44,000 tons a year and supported 60,000 jobs.

  • California has lost 95 percent of its wetlands; populations of migratory birds and waterfowl, which depend on such areas for food and habitat, have dropped from 60 million around 1950 to 3 million today.
Social and political stability are also threatened by spreading water scarcity, as neighboring states, provinces, and countries compete for limited water supplies. Tensions over water persist in the major river basins of the Middle East -- the Jordan, the Nile, and the Tigris-Euphrates -- as well as in the Ganges of South Asia and the Aral Sea basin. In none of these is there yet a treaty recognized by all the parties that allocates the basin's waters among them. Worldwide, at least 214 rivers flow through two or more countries, but no enforceable law governs the allocation and use of international waters.

In the Jordan River basin, water has figured prominently in the peace negotiations. In the interim agreement signed by Israel and the Palestinians in September 1995, Israel recognized, for the first time, that the Palestinians have rights to West Bank groundwater -- which now accounts for 25 percent of Israel's total supply -- and agreed on an interim allotment of water to them. But on a per capita basis, Israeli settlers in the West Bank use about four times more water than neighboring Palestinians, and pay about a third as much per cubic meter. Until such inequities are addressed and the larger issue of the permanent allocation of water rights is resolved, tensions will persist.

Water-sharing agreements that include all parties in a river basin are urgently needed to resolve conflicts, Postel said. In the Nile basin, a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan allocates an amount of Nile water between them that adds up to nearly 90 percent of the river's average annual flow -- even though 86 percent of that flow originates in Ethiopia. Now that Ethiopia is in a position to begin tapping Nile waters for its own development, an agreement to share the waters more equitably is essential for regional peace and stability.

Opportunities to satisfy competing needs for water by developing new water sources are limited, according to Dividing the Waters. "With the best dam sites already developed and many groundwater reserves overtapped, a new and more promising blueprint is needed -- one focused on using water more efficiently, sharing it equitably, and protecting the health of freshwater ecosystems."

Nearly the entire spectrum of conservation and efficiency options -- including leak repair, investment in more efficient technologies, and water recycling -- cost less than the development of new water sources, according to the report. A host of such measures with the potential to save vast quantities of water remain untapped because of inadequate incentives to encourage their use.

More rational water pricing and mechanisms to allow water trading would help promote greater efficiency. In southern California, for example, the Metropolitan Water District is investing in conservation measures in the Imperial Irrigation District in exchange for the water those investments will save. The annual cost of the conserved water is estimated at about 10 cents per cubic meter, far lower than the water district's best new-supply option. And new needs are met without an environmentally damaging dam or river diversion.

Since urban water use will likely double within 30 years, treated wastewater will be both an expanding and fairly reliable supply in the future -- and a particularly good new source for agriculture, Dividing the Waters says. Treated wastewater already accounts for 30 percent of Israel's agricultural water supply, and this figure is expected to rise to 80 percent by 2025.

Although fresh water is renewable, it is also finite. Living within the limits of nature's water supply will require reduced consumption among the more wealthy social groups and reduced family size among all groups. With nearly two out of every five tons of grain going into meat and poultry production, for example, individual choices about diet collectively can influence how much water is needed to satisfy future food demands.

"Successfully meeting the challenges of water scarcity will require major changes in agricultural systems, economic policies, technologies, and ethics. They cannot be met by engineers alone. It is time for political leaders to take notice, and act."

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