What Water Crisis?

by: Paul Kedrosky

There is what's sure to be a fight-starting cover piece in the current New Scientist arguing that there is no global water crisis. The gist of the argument: Water is poorly managed, with too much going to agriculture in the wrong places, but, properly allocated, there is enough water almost everywhere to go around and drive global economic growth.

water-allocationWait a minute. How can that be, you wonder. There is drought everywhere, depleted aquifers, salt-poisoned farmland, and so on and on.

Well, the problem, according to the piece's author, is that most calculations of water scarcity/sufficiency are broader than they arguably should be:

The main problem with Falkenmark's figures is that they refer to the amount of water required for a country to be self-sufficient in food production in a semi-arid region. Agriculture is among the most water-intensive human activities, particularly where crops need irrigation. According to the report Water Footprints of Nations, published in 2004 by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, producing a kilogram of wheat takes more than 1300 litres of water, for example. For rice, the figure is almost 3000 litres.

The solution? Agricultural trade.  By substituting food shipments for domestic water consumption you are creating "virtual water"; that is, increasing your domestic water supply without actually having to find an aquifer under a rock somewhere.

So, if you take agriculture out of the picture, and adjust water consumption to reflect water savings through prudent domestic usage, how much water per capita do most countries need for growth? The New Scientist piece argues it's close to 135 litres per person per day (which is waaay lower than the usual figure, including agriculture, of 4,654 litres per person/day).

At this lower level, which countries are truly water stressed? Just Kuwait and the UAE, and both make up the difference via desalination. Water crisis? What water crisis? What we do have is an agricultural trade crisis.

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