Water and Population by Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute

Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

It took all of human history (thousands of years) until 1920 for the Earth to have 2 billion people. Now, in only 94 years, the Earth holds more than 7.2 billion people. Each person needs fresh water and food every day. According to Lester Brown, “Each day we drink nearly 4 liters of water, but it takes some 2,000 liters of water—500 times as much—to produce the food we consume.” More people, more water consumption. Water scarcity may be the most underrated resource issue the world is facing today.

Water Resources Fact Sheet from Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute

• Seventy percent of world water use is for irrigation.

• 1,000 tons of water is used to produce 1 ton of grain.

• Between 1950 and 2000, the world’s irrigated area tripled to roughly 700 million acres. After several decades of rapid increase, however, the growth has slowed dramatically, expanding only 9 percent from 2000 to 2009. Given that governments are much more likely to report increases than decreases, the recent net growth may be even smaller.

• The dramatic loss of momentum in irrigation expansion coupled with the depletion of underground water resources suggests that peak water may now be on our doorstep. Add to this the continuing growth of human population.

• Failing aquifers: Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States. Important: these are also the 3 most populous countries in the world.

• Saudi Arabia is the first country to publicly predict how aquifer depletion will reduce its grain harvest. It will soon be totally dependent on imports from the world market or overseas farming projects for its grain.

• Rivers now run dry: While falling water tables are largely hidden, rivers that run dry or are reduced to a trickle before reaching the sea are highly visible. Among this group that has limited outflow during at least part of the year are the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States; the Yellow, the largest river in northern China; the Nile, the lifeline of Egypt; the Indus, which supplies most of Pakistan’s irrigation water; and the Ganges in India’s densely populated Gangetic basin.

• Many smaller rivers and lakes have disappeared entirely as water demands have increased.

• Overseas “land grabs” for farming are also water grabs. Among the prime targets for overseas land acquisitions are Ethiopia and the Sudans, which together occupy three-fourths of the Nile River Basin, adding to the competition with Egypt for the river’s water.

• Future wars will more likely be fought over water than oil, but in reality the competition for water is taking place in world grain markets. The countries that are financially the strongest, not necessarily those that are militarily the strongest, will fare best in this competition.

Climate change is hydrological change. Higher global average temperatures will mean more droughts in some areas, more flooding in others, and less predictability overall.


Posted on July 30, 2014. Data and additional resources available at www.earth-policy.org. Feel free to pass this information along to friends, family members, and colleagues!

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