I witnessed one aspect of the global water crisis while strolling earlier this month through the central market in Mae Sot, a small trading town on the Thailand-Myanmar border. To my great surprise, peasant farmers were selling stacks of yellow corn, a quintessential new world crop. Their stands stood next to stalls carrying frogs, turtles and snakes. My 13-year-old daughter couldn't understand how people could eat their pets. I couldn't understand the corn.
A few hours later, as we drove past the rice fields south of the town heading toward a scheduled rendezvous at a malaria clinic on the Moei River, I got my answer. Over one rise, the paddies gave way to rolling hills of corn, whose golden tassels atop ten-foot stalks indicated the ears were nearly ready for harvest.
My physician guide, Francois Nosten of the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit, explained that growing water shortages in the region were forcing farmers away from their traditional rice crop, which is about as thirsty a staple as exists on earth. The problem in switching to the less water-intensive corn, he said, was that it made the farmers dependent on U.S. multinationals for their seeds since the hybrids sold in Asia, as in the U.S., are sterile. "It's a form of dependency," he said, "and not everyone appreciates that."
It wasn't my only run-in with the water issue during my Asian trip. While in China, reports in the controlled press from Chungqing, a city of 31 million souls, were scary enough to make me begin hoarding the potable water that had been provided in my hotel room (you'd have to be out of your mind to drink what came out of the tap). Southwestern China had gone 70 straight days without rain - even as the southeast coast was being pummeled by a monsoon. According to the press accounts, fields were in ruins, wells were running dry and thousands of people were being forced to flee their homes in search of water.
Naturally, this experience sensitized me to the new report published today from the International Water Management Institute, which is based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The report saw many disturbing trends in the outlook for global water supplies over the next 50 years, but also held out some hope for a world that will increase in population by 33 percent over that period.
The great pressure on global water supplies will come from agriculture, which consumes nearly 80 percent of all water. It takes anywhere from 400 to 5,000 liters of water to produce one kilo (2.2 pounds) of grain. But it takes 10,000 liters to produce a kilo of meat. With global wealth rising, each one of us is using more and more water, primarily through the food we eat. The average person's caloric intake increased from 2,250 kcal per day in 1961 to 2,800 kcal in 2000 (South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are exceptions to this broad improvement). If all goes well - a big if - billions more people will be entering the meat-eating class in the next half century.
To cope, agricultural productivity will have to continue its dramatic rise. Output per acre doubled in the past four decades. The good news is that agriculture accomplished this goal without a commensurate increase in water consumption. Can agricultural and water productivity continue its rapid ascent?
The report was not sanguine. Many river basins around the world are overcommitted and, in some cases, no longer reach the sea. Think of our own mighty Colorado River, which peters out before reaching the Pacific. Water tables in China, India and Mexico are declining sharply in their most populated areas and are in danger of becoming exhausted. Water quality is being degraded by soil erosion, pollution, salinization, nutrient depletion and the intrusion of seawater, the report said.
Meanwhile, irrigation in developing countries is expanding rapidly. That increases agricultural production, alleviates poverty and facilitates industrialization by freeing up agricultural labor. But it simultaneously increases environmental degradation. Industrialization, itself a water-intensive process, puts additional strains on water supplies.
And all of this will take place in the context of global climate change where temperatures are rising and precipitation falling. Agriculture near the equator, where countries are usually poor, will be the first affected, the report points out.
The report offered no real solutions beyond "better governance." What more could they say? Declining water resources, like global warming, looms as one of the great mega-issues of the 21st century. It will shape human history. Governments and people will deal with it because they have to, and probably not a moment sooner. But as Asian rice farmers growing corn show, entire cultures will be transformed - and damn fast, too - when they are hammered by the larger-than-life events.