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When the World's Wells Run Dry

When the World's Wells Run Dry

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When the World’s Wells Run Dry
by Sandra Postel
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I
n 1970, farmers in rural Deaf Smith County inthe Texas panhandle encountered a small butdefinite sign that local agriculture was seriously out of balance. An irrigation well that had beendrilled in 1936 went dry. After more than 30 years of heavy pumping, the water table had dropped24 meters. Soon other wells began to dry up too. Water tables were falling across a wide area of theTexas High Plains, and when energy prices shot up inthe 1970s, farmers were forced to close down thou-sands of wells because they could no longer afford topump from such depths.During the last three decades, the depletion of underground water reserves, known as aquifers, hasspread from isolated pockets of the agricultural land-scape to large portions of the world’s irrigated land.Many farmers are now pumping groundwater fasterthan nature is replenishing it, causing a steady dropin water tables. Just as a bank account dwindles if  withdrawals routinely exceed deposits, so will anunderground water reserve decline if pumpingexceeds recharge. Groundwater overdrafting is now  widespread in the crop-producing regions of centraland northern China, northwest and southern India,parts of Pakistan, much of the western United States,North Africa, the Middle East, and the ArabianPeninsula.Many cities are overexploiting groundwater as well. Portions of Bangkok and Mexico City are actu-ally sinking as geologic formations compact after the water is removed. Albuquerque, Phoenix, andTucson are among the larger U.S. cities that areoverdrafting their aquifers.Globally, however, it is in agriculture where thegreatest social risks lie. Irrigated land is dispropor-tionately important to world food production. Some40 percent of the global harvest comes from the 17percent of cropland that is irrigated. Because of lim-ited opportunities for expanding rainfed production, we are betting on that share to increase markedly inthe decades ahead, in order to feed the world’s grow-ing population. As irrigation goes deeper and deeperinto hydrologic debt, the possibilities for serious dis-ruption grow ever greater. Should energy prices riseagain, for example, farmers in many parts of the world could find it too expensive to irrigate.Groundwater overpumping may now be the singlebiggest threat to food production.Our irrigation base is remarkably young: 60 per-cent of it is less than 50 years old. Yet a number of threats to its continued productivity are already apparent. Along with groundwater depletion, there isthe buildup of salts in the soil, the silting up of reser- voirs and canals, mounting competition for waterbetween cities and farms and between countries shar-ing rivers, rapid population growth in regions that arealready water-stressed—and on top of all that, theuncertainties of climate change. Any one of thesethreats could seriously compromise agriculture’s pro-ductivity. But these stresses are evolving simultane-ously—making it increasingly likely that cracks willappear in our agricultural foundation.Few governments are taking adequate steps toaddress any of these threats and, hidden below thesurface, groundwater depletion often gets the leastattention of all. Yet this hydrologic equivalent of deficit financing cannot continue indefinitely.Groundwater withdrawals will eventually come back into balance with replenishment—the only questionis whether they do so in a planned and coordinated way that maintains food supplies, or in a chaotic andunexpected way that reduces food production, wors-ens poverty, and disrupts regional economies.It is true that there are enormous inefficiencieselsewhere in the agricultural sector—and tacklingthese could take some of the pressure off aquifers. A shift in diets, for example, could conserve largeamounts of irrigation water. The typical U.S. diet, with its high share of animal products, requires twiceas much water to produce as the nutritious but lessmeat-intensive diets common in some Asian andEuropean nations. If U.S. consumers moved downthe food chain, the same volume of water could pro-duce enough food for two people instead of one,leaving more water in rivers and aquifers. But giventhe rates of groundwater depletion, there is no longer
When the World’s
by Sandra Postel

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