Reflections on a Thirsty Planet

by National Geographic

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By Sandra Postel of National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative

Water, I have learned, means different things to different people.

To the novelist D. H. Lawrence, water was mysterious.  It is “hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes it water and nobody knows what that is.”

To the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, water was supernatural: “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

And to the ancient Greek poet Pindar, water was quite simply “the best of all things.”

But for millions of people in the developing world – especially women and girls – water means a daily struggle to trek to a source, carry fifty pounds of it home, and then hope against hope that drinking it won’t make a family member sick or die.

For millions of poor farmers, water means the difference between hunger and a full belly, and between a well-nourished child and one stunted from malnutrition.  Without a way to access irrigation water or store enough rainwater in the soil, the long dry season is often a trying time of one meal a day.

For river people around the world, who rely on fish for protein and income, water is home to the aquatic life that sustains them, day in and day out.

Water is essential to all of life, and to all of our lives.  And so it is fitting that once a year, on March 22, the world takes a moment to celebrate and contemplate this magical, mysterious, essential, life-giving compound called H2O.

The idea for an International World Water Day crystallized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and the next year, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated March 22, 1993 as the first World Water Day.

Every year since then the UN has selected a different water theme for the day.  Past themes have focused on water and cities, culture, sanitation, pollution, disasters and trans-boundary cooperation. This year’s theme is water and food security, with the tag line: “the world is thirsty because we are hungry.”

For me, this year’s theme is the 800-pound gorilla of water challenges.  Agriculture accounts for the lion’s share of global water consumption.  We “eat” at least a thousand times more water than we drink. The thirsty business of growing crops – in the ways and places that we do to meet the demands of seven billion people – is the primary reason earth’s rivers are running dry, aquifers are being depleted, and lakes are shrinking before our eyes.

Demographers project that the world will add another one billion people by 2025.  That means, between now and then, an additional 210,000 people will join the global dinner table every night.  At the same time, many millions will achieve incomes sufficient to add more meat to their diets.  Because it takes water to grow the grain to feed the cows, pigs and chickens, this means the water footprint of that global dinner table could rise considerably faster than population growth.

I ran some numbers.  Under some quite conservative assumptions, it could take an additional 1,314 billion cubic meters of water per year – equal to the annual flow of 73 Colorado rivers – to meet the world’s dietary needs in 2025.

That’s a disheartening prospect. Where in the world can we find affordable farm water equivalent to 73 Colorado Rivers without hastening the depletion of rivers, lakes and aquifers?

But maybe that’s not the right question.  If the goal is to meet the world’s food needs sustainably, the question we should ask is, how do we provide healthy diets for eight billion people without going deeper into water debt?

Now that’s a horse of a different color.  And that’s the challenge I address in my five-point plan of action for World Water Day 2012:

  • First, provide incentives to farmers to double water productivity – that is, to get more crop per drop.  A host of measures – from more efficient irrigation systems to conserving soil moisture to growing crops more appropriate to the local climate – can help do this.
  • Second, motivate the top billion consumers to eat less meat. We’re now feeding 35 percent of the global grain harvest to livestock.  Instead of three meat servings a day, maybe try one a day.
  • Third, restore degraded rangelands through managed intensive grazing, which can increase both carbon and water storage in soils.  Move from grain-fed to grass-fed beef, saving croplands to feed people and using rangelands for sustainable meat production.
  • Fourth, expand access to affordable, small-scale irrigation in the hunger zones of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  Along with harvesting local rainwater and storing moisture in the soil, affordable irrigation systems designed for the dollar-a-day farmer can boost food security and incomes among the poorest farm families.
  • And fifth, reduce food waste.  From farm fields to dinner plates, about one-third of the global food supply is wasted – which means the water consumed to produce that food is wasted, too.

Taken together, I believe these actions could feed eight billion people sustainably in 2025.

So let’s get started.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

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