Global threat to food supply as water wells dry up

by John Vidal

The Observer

Wells are drying up and underwater tables falling so fast in the Middle East and parts of India, China and the United States that food supplies are seriously threatened, one of the world’s leading resource analysts warned on July 7.

In a major new essay, Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington, claims that 18 countries, together containing half the world’s people, are now overpumping their underground water tables to the point — known as “peak water” — where they are not replenishing and where harvests are getting smaller each year.

The situation is most serious in the Middle East. According to Brown: “Among the countries whose water supply has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. By 2016 Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15 million tons of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its population of 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

“The world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.”

Brown warns that Syria’s grain production peaked in 2002 and since then has dropped 30 percent; Iraq has dropped its grain production 33 percent since 2004; and production in Iran dropped 10 percent between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry.

“Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen there by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain.”

There is also concern about falling water tables in China, India and the U.S., the world’s three largest food-producing countries. “In India, 175 million people are being fed with grain produced by overpumping, in China 130 million. In the United States the irrigated area is shrinking in leading farm states with rapid population growth, such as California and Texas, as aquifers are depleted and irrigation water is diverted to cities.”

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the U.S. as the world’s largest grain producer, says Brown. “The water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces more than half of the country’s wheat and a third of its maize is falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.”

The situation in India may be even worse, given that well drillers are now using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water half a mile or more deep.

“The harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but only because of massive overpumping from the water table. The margin between food consumption and survival is precarious in India, whose population is growing by 18 million per year and where irrigation depends almost entirely on underground water. Farmers have drilled some 21 million irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water and water tables are declining at an accelerating rate in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.”

In the U.S., farmers are overpumping in the Western Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. “It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions,” says Brown.

“In Texas, located on the shallow end of the aquifer, the irrigated area peaked in 1975 and has dropped 37 percent since then. In Oklahoma irrigation peaked in 1982 and has dropped by 25 percent. In Kansas the peak did not come until 2009, but during the three years since then it has dropped precipitously, falling nearly 30 percent. Nebraska saw its irrigated area peak in 2007. Since then its grain harvest has shrunk by 15 percent.”

Brown warned that many other countries may be on the verge of declining harvests. “With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind.”

  • Janearther

    Get ready for the global famine. Wouldn’t be surprised if that is what world leaders are hoping for as the wars and starvation to come as a result would cull many poor and bring them much profit as well as the companies like Monsanto looking to be the saviors when they are the ones perpetuating it with their GMO crops.

  • Starviking

    The problem with assessing what Lester Brown says is that, when looking at his essay, he provides no scientific references at all. That makes it hard to judge whether he is accurately reflecting what is happening or not.

  • Edward Kirby

    “The major cause of problems are solutions.” — Eric Severeid

    If not for technology — specifically Borlaug’s Nobel Prize winning work with wheat hybrids — we wouldn’t have over-population problems right now. Instead, we’d still have horrific news stories about massive starvation occurring in places like India, China, Bangladesh, and so on.

    If you create a new highway to relieve congestion, eventually, that highway also becomes congested, necessitating the building of a new highway. At a certain point, we won’t be able to build new highways, and will need to seek alternate solutions (all of which come with a new set of problems to address).

    Even if we use technology to solve the coming food crisis, all that will do is create the means by which global population can continue its rapid increase. OTOH, if you address the problem from the demand side of the equation by implementing population control measures, the economy — which is strongly rooted in growth — will likely collapse.

    Its a tough situation, and its unlikely any one person or group of people can be blamed (too much) for where we are. It was likely inevitable as soon as we humans transcended our “apex predator” role in the ecosystem, and became the superspecies we are now.