A future in which water is scarce will be translated into a future in which food is scarce, intensifying global competition for grain and pushing up food prices, according to Lester Brown, president and founder of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington.
Although many countries are facing water shortages — a topic being addressed at the ongoing World Water Forum in Kyoto — not many people realize the connection between water and food, Brown said.
The environmental expert said we are creating a worldwide bubble economy for food. Production is being artificially inflated and governments are adding to the water deficit by over-pumping underground water for irrigation, he claimed.
Brown established the Worldwatch Institute, a private think tank that publishes annual reports on the global environment, before going on to start EPI in 2001. The nonprofit environmental research organization was set up to provide a vision for an environmentally sustainable economy.
Brown is in Japan to speak at several environmental conferences and, although his stay is not directly linked to the World Water Forum, he has long taken an interest in water-related issues.
Citing the fact that water tables are falling and aquifers are being depleted in many countries, Brown said the world will face declines in food production. He pointed to China, India and the United States — the three biggest food producers, which together account for half the world’s grain harvest.
The problem is especially prominent in China, he said, explaining that the annual drop in the water table beneath the North China Plain has increased to 3 meters today from 1.5 meters in the mid 1990s. The region produces roughly half the country’s wheat and one-third of its corn, he added.
Since this deterioration is happening underground, he said, the issue is not receiving as much public attention as it should.
Countries experiencing water scarcity will have no choice but to import grain from world markets, because that is the most efficient way to make up for a lack of water, Brown said.
And that is how the water issue — once merely a local concern — is quickly becoming a global issue, via the international grain trade, he argued.
Brown believes that a whole new way of thinking, to systematically improve water productivity, is necessary to counter this problem.
Citing one possible solution, he suggested that water prices be increased to ensure the resource is used more efficiently. He argued that the relative cheapness of water allows people to take it for granted and use it wastefully.
“I think the most important thing to do is to begin to raise the price of water to reflect its real value,” he said.
Asked about people in developing nations who would not be able to afford water if it became more expensive, Brown suggested a method by which each household would be allowed to have a certain amount of water cheaply, but would have to pay more if its consumption exceeded that level.
Brown expressed regret that the World Water Forum is seeing the departure or absence of government representatives with the start of the war in Iraq. He said the international community should pay more attention to water-related problems because they will be with the world for a long time.
“We have not realized how serious the water issue is going to become,” he said. “I think we are underestimating the problems.”
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