Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Impending Food “Bubble”: The World Is Running Low On Water

Via The Orange County Register, an article taking a new look at a 2005 World Bank study that reported that the grain supply for 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese is produced by overpumping water.  As the report notes:

“…There are all kinds of bubbles. We had the financial bubble that burst in 2008, causing economic devastation that we are still paying for.

There is the Chinese real estate bubble, the biggest in history, which, when it bursts, may take the whole world economy down with it. But nothing compares with the food bubble.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published in 2008 a report on world food supply, predicting the price surge that year would quickly revert to normal: “Barring any underlying climate change or water constraints that could lead to permanent reductions in yield, normal higher output can be expected in the very short term.” And barring age, disease and accidents, we will all live forever.

From April 2010 to April 2011 the average world price of grain soared by 71 percent: not a very big deal for people in rich countries who spend less than 10 percent of their incomes on food, but a catastrophe for poor people who already spend more than half their money just to keep their families fed. And that is before things get really serious. But they will.

Let’s ignore the effects of climate change, because it’s too early in the game to be certain that any given drought, flood or heat wave has been caused by rising temperatures. Let’s just talk about what happens to the world food supply when the irrigation water runs out.

The first great food price crisis was in the early 1970s, when consumption was outrunning production due to rapid population growth; the world’s population almost doubled from 1945-75. Grain prices were even higher in real terms than they are now, and there was near-starvation in some areas. But the problem was quickly solved by the famous “Green Revolution,” which hugely increased yields of rice, wheat and corn.

The only drawback was that the Green Revolution wasn’t really all that green. Higher-yielding strains of familiar crops played a part in the solution, certainly, but so did a vastly increased use of fertilizer: global fertilizer use tripled from 1960-75. And above all, there was an enormous expansion of the world’s irrigated area. It has more than tripled since 1950.

Only 10 percent of the world’s cropland is irrigated even now, but that irrigated land provides about 40 percent of the world’s food. Yet they didn’t discover any new rivers after 1950. Almost all of the new irrigated land – two-thirds of the total – uses water that is pumped up from deep underground aquifers.

A lot of those aquifers are “fossil,” meaning that they filled with water long ago and are now cut off from the surface. They eventually will be pumped dry. Others still recharge from surface water that filters down, but they are almost all being pumped at many times their recharge rate, so they will effectively go dry, too.

Obviously, the aquifers won’t all go dry at once. But most of them are going to go dry at some point in the next 30 years.
The irrigated area in the United States has probably already passed its peak. In key agricultural states, it is already long past: 1978 in Texas, 1997 in California. In China and India irrigation may be at its peak right now. A World Bank study reported in 2005 that the grain supply for 175 million Indians and 130 million Chinese is produced by overpumping water.

It gets worse. In the Middle East, Israel banned all irrigation of wheat in 2000 in order to conserve the remaining underground water for people. It now imports 98 percent of its grain. More recently Saudi Arabia, which was self-sufficient in wheat production only five years ago, decided to shut grain-growing down completely before the major aquifer under the country runs dry. Next year, it will import 100 percent of its grain.

Saudi Arabia will be able to go on importing grain even when the price is twice what it is now, and so will Israel. But there are a great many countries that will lose their ability to feed their people once the irrigation bubble bursts – and will not be able to afford to import food at the vastly inflated prices that ensue.

The crisis is coming, and it is quite unavoidable. We are living way beyond our means.



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