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We Can't Solve Our Food Crisis if We Don't Talk About Water

Protecting our water commons should be a key issue in our debate about food politics.

The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Protecting the Water Commons
Water is a precious and dwindling resource that desperately needs protection. Agriculture accounts for the majority of the water humans use. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 70 percent of water usage worldwide is agricultural, mostly for irrigation. Using "conventional" input-intensive methods, it takes as much as 250 gallons of water to produce a pound of corn and 8,500 gallons to produce a pound of grain-fed beef. Irrigation systems are often inefficient, with the majority of the water evaporating or running off the field, carrying with it agricultural chemicals into surface water supplies. Irrigation also alters soil conditions, eroding precious topsoil and depositing salts, which accumulate and eventually render the land inhospitable to plant life.

Agriculture doesn't have to use so much water. Traditional, locally bred plant varieties and animal breeds have been adapted to local water patterns through selection over time, exhibiting qualities such as drought tolerance, which enable them to produce even without regular watering. However, high yields from "improved" hybrid seeds depend upon a considerable and consistent supply of water.

In many regions, water demand is met by pumping underground water supplies (known as groundwater, in contrast to surface supplies, such as water from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs). Most of the food produced in the Great Plains of the United States is irrigated with water from the Ogallala aquifer, a single vast underground system spanning eight states. The problem is that the aquifer is being drained much faster than it's being replenished. In the past fifty years the aquifer has lost over a third of its volume, and each year another foot and half of water is pumped from it, though the recharge rate from surface water seepage is just half an inch per year. Food produced using water from such a slowly renewing source is doubly unsustainable, using up not only fossil fuel for agricultural chemicals and transportation but also water supplies that have accumulated over millennia and that will take many generations to replenish.

As underground water levels are depleted, surface lakes and riversoften disappear. In coastal areas, excessive groundwater pumping can lead to seawater seeping into drinking water supplies. UNESCO warns that drawing on groundwater supplies "unavoidably results in depleting the storage and has unfavourable consequences." Nevertheless, it is common practice. Groundwater is the source of about 25 percent of the water supply, both in the United States and globally.

"The world is incurring a vast water deficit, one that is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast," summarizes the Earth Policy Institute's Lester R. Brown. In our property system, any scarce resource becomes a commodity. Water is "one of the great business opportunities," states Fortune magazine. "The dollars at stake are huge. . . Water promises to be to the twenty-first century what oil was to the twentieth." Indeed, speculators have begun to trade in water "futures" just as they do any other commodity.

Policymakers proclaim that market forces will lead to more rational use of water. The World Bank, as part of its overall program of encouraging governments to divest themselves of services and industries, has aggressively promoted privatization of public water infrastructure since the 1990s, promising better water services through market efficiency and private investment. Yet those water systems that have been privatized have consistently seen higher consumer prices and disappointing levels of infrastructure investment. "What has now become clear is that the major multinational water corporations have no intention of making a significant contribution to the capital needed to ensure access to clean and affordable water," concludes a study by the U.S. consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. "The rhetoric of private sector financing is a myth."

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