[Reader-list] declining water and food

Nagraj Adve nagraj.adve at gmail.com
Sun Apr 24 00:13:42 IST 2011

This will be the Arab world's next battle

Population growth and water supply are on a collision course. Hunger
is set to become the main issue

    Lester Brown
        guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 April 2011 21.00 BST

Long after the political uprisings in the Middle East have subsided,
many underlying challenges that are not now in the news will remain.
Prominent among these are rapid population growth, spreading water
shortages, and growing food insecurity.

In some countries grain production is now falling as aquifers –
underground water-bearing rocks – are depleted. After the Arab
oil-export embargo of the 1970s, the Saudis realised that since they
were heavily dependent on imported grain, they were vulnerable to a
grain counter-embargo. Using oil-drilling technology, they tapped into
an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat. In a
matter of years, Saudi Arabia was self-sufficient in its principal
food staple.

But after more than 20 years of wheat self-sufficiency, the Saudis
announced in January 2008 that this aquifer was largely depleted and
they would be phasing out wheat production. Between 2007 and 2010, the
harvest of nearly 3m tonnes dropped by more than two-thirds. At this
rate the Saudis could harvest their last wheat crop in 2012 and then
be totally dependent on imported grain to feed their population of
nearly 30 million.

The unusually rapid phaseout of wheat farming in Saudi Arabia is due
to two factors. First, in this arid country there is little farming
without irrigation. Second, irrigation depends almost entirely on a
fossil aquifer – which, unlike most aquifers, does not recharge
naturally from rainfall. And the desalted sea water the country uses
to supply its cities is far too costly for irrigation use – even for
the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia's growing food insecurity has led it to buy or lease land
in several other countries, including two of the world's hungriest,
Ethiopia and Sudan. In effect, the Saudis are planning to produce food
for themselves with the land and water resources of other countries to
augment their fast-growing imports.

In neighbouring Yemen, replenishable aquifers are being pumped well
beyond the rate of recharge, and the deeper fossil aquifers are also
being rapidly depleted. Water tables are falling throughout Yemen by
about two metres per year. In the capital, Sana'a – home to 2 million
people – tap water is available only once every four days. In Taiz, a
smaller city to the south, it is once every 20 days.

Yemen, with one of the world's fastest-growing populations, is
becoming a hydrological basket case. With water tables falling, the
grain harvest has shrunk by one-third over the last 40 years, while
demand has continued its steady rise. As a result the Yemenis import
more than 80% of their grain. With its meagre oil exports falling,
with no industry to speak of, and with nearly 60% of its children
physically stunted and chronically undernourished, this poorest of the
Arab countries is facing a bleak and potentially turbulent future.

The likely result of the depletion of Yemen's aquifers – which will
lead to further shrinkage of its harvest and spreading hunger and
thirst – is social collapse. Already a failing state, it may well
devolve into a group of tribal fiefdoms, warring over whatever meagre
water resources remain. Yemen's internal conflicts could spill over
its long, unguarded border with Saudi Arabia.

Syria and Iraq – the other two populous countries in the region – have
water troubles, too. Some of these arise from the reduced flows of the
Euphrates and Tigris rivers, which they depend on for irrigation
water. Turkey, which controls the headwaters of these rivers, is in
the midst of a massive dam building programme that is reducing
downstream flows. Although all three countries are party to
water-sharing arrangements, Turkey's plans to expand hydropower
generation and its area of irrigation are being fulfilled partly at
the expense of its two downstream neighbours.

Given the future uncertainty of river water supplies, farmers in Syria
and Iraq are drilling more wells for irrigation. This is leading to
overpumping in both countries. Syria's grain harvest has fallen by
one-fifth since peaking at roughly 7m tonnes in 2001. In Iraq, the
grain harvest has fallen by a quarter since peaking at 4.5m tonnes in

Jordan, with 6 million people, is also on the ropes agriculturally.
Forty or so years ago, it was producing more than 300,000 tonnes of
grain per year. Today it produces only 60,000 tonnes and thus must
import over 90% of its grain. In this region, only Lebanon has avoided
a decline in grain production.

Thus in the Arab Middle East, where populations are growing fast, the
world is seeing the first collision between population growth and
water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history,
grain production is dropping in a region with nothing in sight to
arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments 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.

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