Water, Water, Everywhere???

While energy problems have generated much attention, I am convinced that water represents an even more difficult threat for the future. Here are some notes from Lester Brown’s Plan B 2.0

43-4: “Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvests in some countries, including China, the world’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in August 2001 revealed that the water table under the North China Plain, which produces over half of that country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling faster than earlier reported. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep fossil aquifer, which is not replenishable.” Ma, Michael. 2001. “Northern Cities Sinking as Water Table Falls.” South China Morning Post (11 August); share of China’s grain harvest from the North China Plain based on Hong Yang and Zehnder, Alexander. 2001. “China’s Regional Water Scarcity and Implications for Grain Supply and Trade,” Environment and Planning A, vol. 33; and USDA, Production, Supply, & Distribution, electronic database, http://www.fas.usda.gov/psd/psdselection.asp, updated (13 September 2005).

44: “The survey, conducted by the Geological Environmental Monitoring Institute (GEMI) in Beijing, reported that under Hebei Province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer was dropping nearly 3 meters (10 feet) per year. Around some cities in the province, it was falling twice as fast. He Qingcheng, head of the GEMI groundwater monitoring team, notes that as the deep aquifer is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve-its only safety cushion.” Ma, op. cit.

44: “His concerns are mirrored in a World Bank report: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that deep wells [drilled] around Beijing now have to reach 1,000 meters [more than half a mile] to tap fresh water, adding dramatically to the cost of supply.” In unusually strong language for a Bank report, it foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.” World Bank, China: Agenda for Water Sector Strategy for North China (Washington, DC: April 2001): pp. vii, xi

44: “The U.S. embassy in Beijing reports that wheat farmers in some areas are now pumping from a depth of 300 meters, or nearly 1,000 feet. Pumping water from this far down raises pumping costs so high that farmers are often forced to abandon irrigation and return to less productive dryland farming.” John Wade, Adam Branson, and Xiang Qing, China Grain and Feed Annual Report 2002 (Beijing: USDA, 21 February 2002).

44: “Falling water tables, the conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses, and the loss of farm labor in provinces that are rapidly industrializing are combining to shrink China’s grain harvest. The wheat crop, grown mostly in semiarid northern China, is particularly vulnerable to water shortages. After peaking at 123 million tons in 1997, the harvest has fallen in five of the last eight years, coming in at 95 million tons in 2005, a drop of 23 percent.” Grain production from USDA.

44: “The U.S. embassy also reports that the recent decline in rice production is partly a result of water shortages. After peaking at 140 million tons in 1997, the harvest dropped in four of the following eight years, falling to an estimated 127 million tons in 2005. Only corn, China’s third major grain, has thus far avoided a decline. This is because corn prices are favorable and because the crop is not as irrigation-dependent as wheat and rice are.” Wade, Branson, and Xiang; grain production from USDA, op. cit.

44-5: “Overall, China’s grain production has fallen from its historical peak of 392 million tons in 1998 to an estimated 358 million tons in 2005. For perspective, this drop of 34 million tons exceeds

45: “the annual Canadian wheat harvest. China largely covered the drop-off in production by drawing down its once vast stocks until 2004, at which point it imported 7 million tons of grain.” Grain production from USDA.

45: “A World Bank study indicates that China is overpumping three river basins in the north-the Hai, which flows through Beijing and Tianjin; the Yellow; and the Huai, the next river south of the Yellow. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, the shortfall in the Hai basin of nearly 40 billion tons of water per year (1 ton equals 1 cubic meter) means that when the aquifer is depleted, the grain harvest will drop by 40 million tons-enough to feed 120 million Chinese.” World Bank, p. viii; calculations by Earth Policy Institute based on 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain in U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Yield Response to Water (Rome: 1979).

“Of the leading grain producers, only China has thus far experienced a substantial decline in production. Even with a worldwide grain crunch and climbing grain prices providing an incentive to boost production, it will be difficult for China to regain earlier grain production levels, given the loss of irrigation water.” Irrigated area from FAO, FAOSTAT Statistics Database, at apps.fao.org, updated 4 April 2005; grain harvest from USDA,

Brown, Lester R. 2006. Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (Washington, D.C.: Earth Policy Institute). <http://www.earth-policy.org/Books/PB2/pb2ch3.pdf&gt;

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