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There Doesn’t Have To Be A Water Crisis

Yes, there are droughts everywhere. But there is enough water in our rivers to quench all thirst and increase food production. All it will take is not wasting so much of it.

There Doesn’t Have To Be A Water Crisis
Flickr user Nina_Moosh

The next wars, we are told, will be fought over water. Water-related conflicts and shortages already abound throughout societies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. But what if they’re completely unnecessary. What if there is there actually more than enough water to sustain food, energy, industrial, and environmental needs during the 21st century?

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According to a report appearing in the peer-reviewed journal, Water International, we have more than enough to sustainably double food production in the coming decades. Yet we may still be running out of it. Why? The “sleeping giant” of water challenges is not scarcity, argues scientists from the agricultural research group CGIAR’s Challenge Program on Water and Food, who spent five years gathering data from 30 countries for the study, but the inefficient and inequitable distribution of water from key rivers such as the Nile, Ganges, Andes, Yellow, Niger, and Volta. “Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins,” says Alain Vidal, director of CGIAR’s water and food program in a statement. “This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern.”

Modest improvements could increase food production two to three times above today’s yields. In Asia and Latin America, production is more than 10 percent below its potential. In the Indus and Ganges river basins of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Bangladesh, about one quarter of fields are only producing half of what they could sustainably yield.

The key is looking to smart management of rain-fed agriculture, not withdrawals from rivers and dropping aquifers, to meet agricultural needs. A second approach is the basin-wide management of water resources–for food, fisheries, livestock, and human use–rather than the “complete fragmentation” of the systems that researchers observed in many places.

The study, available here, finds river basins with “dead spots” for agriculture development and points to “bright spots” of water efficiency in places like the Ganges, Nile, and Yellow River basins, where farmers and governments have responded to development challenges by vastly improving the amount of food production for a given amount of water.

Water resources, in modern industrial economies, are divvied up among competing agencies and interests from agriculture to industry. That will have to change. “In many cases, we need a complete rethink of how government ministries take advantage of the range of benefits coming from river basins,” states the report.

The bottom line appears to be that we need to use less water more efficiently and from different sources. Water use soared at a rate twice population growth in the last century, said Kirsty Jenkinson of the World Resources Institute to Reuters, and the immediate future promises no less demand as people in the poorest countries move from rural areas to cities.

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To find the next drop, we will have to change the way we think about last one.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.

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