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Let's discuss the issue of water and the concerning reality that our planet is facing a depletion of this vital resource. This was highlighted by George Monbiot.
Climate Environment World News

Let’s discuss the issue of water and the concerning reality that our planet is facing a depletion of this vital resource. This was highlighted by George Monbiot.


There is a problem with the plan. It is a major issue: there is a significant gap in our calculations. In order to meet the world’s food demands, crop production must increase by at least 50% by 2050. In theory, this is achievable if no other factors change, largely due to advancements in crop breeding and farming methods. However, all other conditions will inevitably change.

Apart from other concerns such as heat-related effects, soil degradation, and the spread of plant diseases caused by the decrease in genetic variety, there is one critical factor that could alone impede the ability to feed the world’s population – water scarcity.

A study from 2017 approximated that in order to meet the predicted demand for crops, there would need to be a 146% increase in water usage for irrigation by the mid-21st century. However, this presents a small issue as water resources are currently fully utilized.

Generally, arid regions around the world are experiencing greater dryness due to a combination of less rainfall, melting mountain ice and snow causing lower river flow, and higher temperatures leading to increased evaporation and plant transpiration. This has resulted in the emergence of “flash droughts” that rapidly deplete soil moisture, posing a threat to many major agricultural areas. Some areas, like the southwest United States which has been in a drought for 24 years, may have permanently transitioned to a drier state. This has led to reduced river flow to the ocean, shrinking lakes and aquifers, extinction of freshwater species at a rate five times higher than land species, and increased risk of water scarcity for major cities.

Currently, agriculture consumes 90% of the Earth’s freshwater resources. Our excessive pumping has even altered the Earth’s rotation. Unfortunately, the amount of water needed to sustain our expanding food needs is not available.

The paper from 2017 should have caused a rush for action. However, it was disregarded by those in charge and the media. It is not until the crisis reaches Europe that we recognize it as a problem. While there is understandable fear about the droughts in Catalonia and Andalusia, there is a significant lack of recognition from influential groups that this is a global issue that should be a top priority on the political agenda.

Despite causing concerns in Spain, the implementation of drought measures is not the most alarming issue. The Indus river, which is controlled by three countries with nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, and China), also passes through regions that are already struggling with widespread hunger and extreme poverty. Currently, 95% of the river’s water is being utilized for irrigation, with the demand for water increasing rapidly in both Pakistan and India. While the melting glaciers in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush temporarily supply water to the river, this will not last forever and eventually, the river’s flow will decrease.

An almond orchard is removed during a drought, Snelling, California, 2021.View image in fullscreen

Even under the most optimistic climate scenario, runoff from Asian glaciers is expected to peak before mid-century, and glacier mass will shrink by about 46% by 2100. Some analysts see water competition between India and Pakistan as a major cause of the repeated conflicts in Kashmir. But unless a new Indus waters treaty is struck, taking falling supplies into account, this fighting could be a mere prelude for something much worse.

Many people believe that improving irrigation efficiency is the solution to the problem of wasted water in agriculture. However, this leads to what is known as the “irrigation efficiency paradox”. As better methods reduce the amount of water needed to grow crops, the cost of irrigation decreases. This in turn attracts more funding and prompts farmers to grow more profitable, but also more water-intensive, crops. As a result, irrigation expands to cover a larger area. This has been seen in the Guadiana river basin in Spain, where a €600m investment in improving irrigation efficiency actually led to an increase in water use.

One way to resolve the paradox is by implementing regulations that control both overall and individual water usage. However, governments tend to solely rely on technology instead. Yet, without political and economic initiatives, this solution is ineffective.

Reworded: Other technological solutions are unlikely to address the issue. Some governments are considering large-scale engineering projects to transfer water from one location to another. However, due to climate change and increasing demand, many of the areas supplying the water will also eventually experience water shortages. Additionally, desalination facilities often produce water that is five to ten times more expensive than groundwater or rainwater, requiring significant amounts of energy and producing harmful brine.

We must prioritize changing our eating habits. Those who have the luxury of choosing what they eat should aim to reduce the amount of water needed for their food. Although I apologize for repeatedly mentioning it, choosing a plant-based diet is another way to decrease overall crop demand and water consumption. The debate over the water consumption of plant products, particularly almonds and pistachios in California, has become a contentious issue, with conservative influencers attacking plant-based diets. However, despite the excessive irrigation required for these crops, the amount of irrigation water used to produce forage for livestock, specifically dairy cows, is more than double that amount. Dairy milk requires significantly higher amounts of water compared to alternatives such as almond, oat, or soy milk.

There is still a responsibility for plant products when it comes to water usage, and horticulture can have a significant impact on water supplies. Even within a diet centered around plants, we should be mindful of switching up which grains, vegetables and fruits we consume. In order to guide us, governments and retailers can play a role through implementing stricter regulations and providing informative labels.

Alternatively, they take the opposite approach. In response to a request from the EU’s agricultural commissioner, Janusz Wojciechowski, the European Commission removed the encouragement to promote “diversified” (non-animal) protein sources from its recent climate plan. The influence of special interests is particularly powerful in the food and agriculture industry.

I don’t want to burden you further, but it’s important for some of us to work against the constant prejudice towards importance in politics and the media. This is one of many significant issues that are often ignored and could ultimately harm the potential for peace and economic stability on Earth. We must find a way to realign our attention.

  • who also writes for London’s The Guardian

    George Monbiot is a journalist for The Guardian and also contributes to The Guardian in London.

  • .

    Attend a virtual event with George Monbiot, hosted by The Guardian, on May 8, 2024 at 8pm British Summer Time. Monbiot will discuss his latest publication, The Invisible Doctrine: The Hidden Origins of Neoliberalism. Reserve your tickets now.

Source: theguardian.com