Australia is not the only country in the world whose economy and environment is threatened by current water shortages as currently experienced in the Murray Darling Basin.
It is very likely that current water shortages are the result of climate change and give us a window into the future when water scarcity and resulting food insecurity will be the norm for many countries unless we act now to overcome them.
This year, the world and, in particular, developing countries and the poor have been hit by both food and energy crises. As a consequence, prices for many staple foods have risen by up to 100 per cent. When we examine the causes of the food crisis, a growing population, changes in trade patterns, urbanisation, dietary changes, biofuel production, and climate change and regional droughts are all responsible. Thus we have a classic increase in prices due to high demand and low supply.
However, few commentators specifically mention the declining availability of water that is needed to grow irrigated and rainfed crops. According to some, the often mooted solution to the food crisis lies in plant breeding that produces the ultimate high yielding, low water- consuming crops. While this solution is important, it will fail unless attention is paid to where the water for all food, fibre and energy crops is going to come from.
A few years ago, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) demonstrated that many countries are facing severe water scarcity, either as a result of a lack of available fresh water, or due to a lack of investment in water infrastructure such as dams and reservoirs. What makes matters worse is that this scarcity predominantly affects developing countries where the majority of the world’s under-nourished people - about 840 million - live.
The causes of water scarcity are essentially identical to those of the food crisis. There are serious and extremely worrying factors that indicate water supplies are steadily being used up. Essentially every calorie of food requires a litre of water to produce it. Thus those of us on western diets, use about 2,500-3,000 litres per day. A further 2.5 billion people by 2030 will mean that we have to find over 2,000 more cubic kilometres of fresh water to feed them. This is not any easy task given that current water usage for food production is 7,500 cubic kilometres and supplies are scarce.
According to “Water for Food, Water for Life”, a recent study carried out by the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture, which drew on the work of 700 scientists, unless we change the way we use water and increase “water productivity” (i.e. more crop per drop) we will not have enough water to feed the world’s growing population. This population is estimated to increase from 6 billion now to about 8.5 billion in 25 years.
Compared with the lengthy agenda to combat climate change, this is a very short time indeed and yet the impacts of water scarcity will be profound. However, very little is being done about it in most countries.
Since the formulation of the UN Millennium Goals in 2002, much of the water agenda has been focused around the provision of drinking water and sanitation. This water comes from the same sources as agricultural water and as we urbanise and improve living standards there will be increasing competition for drinking water from domestic and other urban users, putting agriculture under further pressure.
While improving drinking water and sanitation is vital with respect to health and living standards, we cannot afford to neglect the provision and improved productivity of water for agriculture.
There are potential solutions.
Better water storage has to be considered. Ethiopia, which is typical of many sub-Saharan African countries, has a water storage capacity of 38 cubic metres per person. Australia has almost 5,000 cubic metres per person, an amount that in the face of current climate change impacts may be inadequate. While there will be a need for new large and medium-sized dams to deal with this critical lack of storage in Africa, other simpler solutions are also part of the equation.
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