The collective water crisis

The collective water crisis
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First Published: Wed, Jun 18 2008. 12 03 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Jun 18 2008. 12 03 AM IST
The world’s agriculture and water crisis is only going to get worse. As China and India grow, their populations are demanding more and wider varieties of food stuffs, competition for arable land is intensifying and freshwater withdrawals for agriculture are soaring. Food prices are rising, in large part because agriculture suppliers can barely keep up with today’s demand. So what is the world doing? Reorienting land away from food production and towards plants cultivated for energy needs.
This could be the single most destructive set of policy mistakes made in a generation. From time immemorial, mankind has struggled to produce enough food. Wars have been fought over arable land. Whole populations have been forced to migrate, and untold millions of human beings have died because circumstances, climate, war or political ineptitude have deprived them of what the German language describes as “Lebensmittel,” or a “means for survival”. This problem hasn’t disappeared; our world today needs to feed some six billion people. According to some projections, that number will rise to nine billion by 2050.
So, why introduce a new competitor for this scarce resource? The blame falls squarely on global warming advocates. Politicians, business and academia are all struggling to come to grips with it. But why? The impact of global warming will be felt in decades at worst, and no one at this stage can predict with any degree of reliability what its consequences might be. Does it make sense to reduce the use of fossil energy? Yes, for many reasons. Are we right in dealing carefully and responsibly with what is left of the oil? And will biofuels really solve our problems?
If there’s one certainty, it is this: The production of biofuels has stimulated a massive, and destructive, reorientation of the world’s agriculture markets. The US department of energy calculates that every 10,000 litres of water produces as little as 5 litres of ethanol, or 1-2 litres of biodiesel. Biofuels are economical nonsense, ecologically useless and ethically indefensible. This year, the US will use around 130 million tonnes of corn for biofuels. This corn was not available as human food or as fodder to animals. Is this the right strategy for a product that won’t satisfy even a small percentage of our energy needs?
The biofuel madness is contributing to water shortages that are already endemic. Stretches of the Rio Grande, which partly separates the US from Mexico, have dried up in regular intervals since 2001. China’s Yellow River ran dry in 1972, 1996 and 1997. Worse yet, we are overusing groundwater in large parts of the world. Water levels are sinking rapidly both in China as well as in India’s Punjab state. Great aquifers, whether in the Sahara or in the south-western US, are being depleted rapidly. This is water that dates from thousands of years ago. Like oil, once gone, it is lost forever.
Increasing agricultural productivity is only part of the solution. The real juggernaut is to encourage the responsible use of water. And the only way to do that is to introduce competitive pricing. Water is being wasted and misused because few people are even aware of its worth. Today, 94% of available water is used by agriculture—and because there are no cost consequences for the farmer, almost all of that water is underused or misused. The same is true for water used in industry and for household purposes. If the cost of infrastructure is not covered, the degradation of municipal water distribution will continue. Water for basic needs should of course remain free. But there is no need, whatsoever, to subsidize water to wash a car, fill a swimming pool or maintain a golf course.
The biofuel craze, egged on by global warming activists, has helped fuel a huge agricultural crisis. But this crisis can at least be partially mitigated through better and more efficient use of the resources that we already have. Right now, the urgent issue is water, not global warming, and we cannot afford to ignore it any longer.
The Wall Street Journal
(Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is chairman of Nestlé. Comment at otherviews@livemint.com)
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First Published: Wed, Jun 18 2008. 12 03 AM IST
More Topics: Water | Biofuel | Agriculture | Views | OtherView |