Dwindling Water Supplies: Another Inconvenient Truth

At last, many of the world’s political leaders have begun to realize that diverting land and food crops to produce bio-fuels leads to higher food prices. 
 But an equally important consequence of this policy folly is being largely ignored in the public and political debate: Producing bio-fuels will further deplete the world’s already overtaxed water supply.

By Peter Brabeck-letmathe

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Published: Tue 7 Oct 2008, 10:17 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:35 PM

This is emblematic of a larger and increasingly dangerous disregard for the world’s most valuable, irreplaceable and finite natural resource: fresh water.

Seventy per cent of all water withdrawal is already used in agriculture, and while all such activity requires water, growing enough soy or corn to create bio-fuels is especially water-intensive. For example, to produce just one gallon of diesel fuel up to 9,000 gallons of water are required. Up to 4,000 gallons are needed to produce enough corn for the same amount of ethanol.

By way of contrast, producing enough food to meet the caloric needs of one person for one day in, for example, Tunisia or Egypt requires about 666 gallons of water, and twice as much in California (caloric needs and intakes vary widely from region to region due to dietary customs).

If all of the bio-fuel targets and timelines set by governments across the world are met, we can expect water withdrawals for agriculture to increase by up to one-third. Making a dent in the world’s energy problems with bio-fuels will require much more water than the world can afford to give up. There simply isn’t enough; water tables are falling throughout the world. While there are substitutes for oil, there are none for water.

The world is facing a water crisis and, consequently, a food crisis that in terms of severity and potential impact far supersedes the current food crisis or the exhaustion of fossil fuels. Either it never occurred to bio-fuel advocates to ask about the amount of water needed for bio-fuel production, or they simply chose to ignore this particular inconvenient truth.

According to a report by the International Water Management Institute, by 2025, about one third of the world’s population, perhaps as many as 3 billion people, will face water shortages. From an agricultural standpoint, we may be looking at losses equivalent to the entire grain crops of India and the United States by then.

According to some estimates, even without bio-fuels, we will very likely reach the upper limit of available fresh water for worldwide consumption, more than 2.9 billion cubic miles, by 2050. A growing reliance on bio-fuels would exacerbate an already difficult challenge.

There was a remarkable lack of careful planning in the drive to convert food to fuel. In Europe and the United States, a developer trying to open a shopping centre is subjected to an extensive environmental impact assessment. But when politicians decided to promote bio-fuels, the decisions were not preceded with a comparably thorough analysis of environmental sustainability.

Regardless of how it happened, policy-makers neglected the dwindling supply of a resource essential to life in order to replace fossil fuels and fight global warming. This was not a sensible trade-off.

There is no question that we have to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. But bio-fuels derived from food crops planted exclusively for that use are clearly the wrong solution. While there are substitutes for oil, there aren’t any for water.

This scandal is instructive because it was caused, in part, by the general attitude towards water in both the developed and developing world. Water is still treated as a limitless resource in too many communities, and one reason is that it has no price.

States heavily subsidise water usage so that it is sometimes even free for both farmers and consumers. Because it is not assigned a value in the marketplace, there is no incentive for using it efficiently.

If water were not free or heavily subsidised, would bio-fuels still be produced? I doubt it!

The water problem can be solved. It requires much more careful stewardship of water supplies by local and national governments.

I, for one, also believe reasonable pricing policies would help by encouraging the use and development of water efficient crops and smart irrigation systems. But even those who disagree with that prescription should be deeply disturbed by the lack of attention paid to water by those who rushed headlong to bio-fuels as the answer to the world’s energy problems.

As the international community grapples with how to fight global warming and build a sustainable future, it must stop ignoring a priority that is even more pressing.

Failure to address the water problem will result in food scarcity. Water scarcity is no longer an environmental issue.

It is a national and international security issue that cannot be ignored.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is the chairman and former chief executive of Nestle

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