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Ecologists warn the planet is running short of water

A swelling global population, changing diets and mankind's expanding “water footprint” could be bringing an end to the era of cheap water.

The warnings, in an annual report by the Pacific Institute in California, come as ecologists have begun adopting the term “peak ecological water” — the point where, like the concept of “peak oil”, the world has to confront a natural limit on something once considered virtually infinite.

The world is in danger of running out of “sustainably managed water”, according to Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute and a leading authority on global freshwater resources.

Humans — via agriculture, industry and other demands - use about half of the world's renewable and accessible fresh water. But even at those levels, billions of people live without the most basic water services, Dr Gleick said.

A key element to tackling the crisis, say experts, is to increase the public understanding of the individual water content of everyday items.

A glass of orange juice, for example, needs 850 litres of fresh water to produce, according to the Pacific Institute and the Water Footprint Network, while the manufacture of a kilogram of microchips — requiring constant cleaning to remove chemicals — needs about 16,000 litres. A hamburger comes in at 2,400 litres of fresh water, depending on the origin and type of meat used.

The water will be returned in various forms to the system, although not necessarily in a location or at a quality that can be effectively reused.

There are concerns that water will increasingly be the cause of violence and even war.

Dan Smith, the Secretary-General of the British-based peacebuilding organisation International Alert, said: “Water is a basic condition for life. Its availability and quality is fundamental for all societies, especially in relation to agriculture and health. There are places — West Africa today, theGanges-Brahmaputra river system in Nepal, Bangladesh and India, and Peru within ten years — where major changes in the rivers generate a significant risk of violent conflict. Good water management is part of peacebuilding.”

David Zhang, a geographer at the University of Hong Kong, produced a study published in the US National Academy of Sciences journal that analysed 8,000 wars over 500 years and concluded that water shortage had played a far greater role as a catalyst than previously supposed.

“We are on alert, because this gives us the indication that resource shortage is the main cause of war,” he told The Times. “Human beings will definitely have conflicts over this.”

Although in theory renewable sources of water were returned to the ecosystem and their use could continue indefinitely, Dr Gleick said, changes in the way water was exploited and how its quality degraded meant that methods of processing it would become more expensive.

“Once we begin appropriating more than ‘peak ecological water' then ecological disruptions exceed the human benefit obtained,” Dr Gleick said. Defined this way, many regions of the world had passed that peak and were using more water than the system could sustain.

A significant part of the problem is the huge, and often deeply inefficient, use of water by industry and agriculture. UN calculations suggest that more than one third of the world's population is suffering from water shortages: by 2020 water use is expected to increase by 40 per cent from current levels, and by 2025, according to another UN estimate, two out of three people could be living under conditions of “water stress”.

The World's Water report sounds a particularly strong note of alarm over the state of water usage and pollution in China, where rampant economic expansion has overtaxed freshwater resources and could even begin to threaten stability.

“When water resources are limited or contaminated, or where economic activity is unconstrained and inadequately regulated, serious social problems can arise,” wrote Dr Gleick, “and in China, these factors have come together in a way that is leading to more severe and complex water challenges than in almost any other place on the planet.”

Drop by drop

Water footprint calculations are still only rough. They differ around the world and depend on climate, soil types, irrigation methods and crop genetics. The water footprint of different meats depends on what the animals are fed and the relative “thirst” of the crops used to feed them

The amount of water required to produce a single litre of soft drink may be only three or four litres, but vast quantities are used to produce the sugar and corn syrup feedstocks. For example, one kilogram of paper requires 125 litres of water to process, but that excludes the water needed to grow the tree.

© 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

From the Financial Times, January 25 2009 23:32

World warned of ‘food crunch’ threat

 By Javier Blas in London

The world faces “the real risk of a food crunch” if governments do not take immediate action to address the agricultural impact of climate change and water scarcity, according to an authoritative report out on Monday.

Chatham House, the London-based think-tank, suggests that the recent fall in food prices is only a temporary reprieve and that prices are set to resume their upward trend once the world emerges from the current downturn.

“There is therefore a real risk of a ‘food crunch’ at some point in the future, which would fall particularly hard on import-dependent countries and on poor people everywhere,” the report states. “Food prices are poised to rise again,” it adds.

The warning is made as agriculture ministers and United Nations officials gather from Monday in Madrid for a UN meeting on food security likely to conclude that last year’s food crisis, with almost 1bn people hungry, is far from over.

The UN will warn ministers in Madrid that “as the global financial crisis deepens, hunger is likely to increase” under the impact of rising unemployment and lower remittances, according to three officials briefed ahead of the meeting.

The prices of agricultural commodities such as rice and wheat jumped to a record high last year, triggering food riots from Haiti and Egypt to Bangladesh and Cameroon and prompting appeals for food aid for more than 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The cost of food commodities had fallen since then, but Alex Evans, the Chatham House report’s author and an expert at New York University, said that “even at their somewhat diminished levels current prices remain acutely problematic for low-income import-dependent countries and for poor people all over the world”.

Josette Sheeran, head of the UN’s World Food Programme, said she was expecting that this year would be at least as “challenging” as last year, when the number of undernourished rose by 40m to 963m people. “We are not seeing an alleviation of the hunger pressure,” she told the Financial Times.

In addition, agricultural commodities prices have recovered in the past two months on the back of lower winter plantings in the US and Europe and a severe drought in Brazil and Argentina, two of the largest producers of food commodities.

Since December, wheat prices have risen 15 per cent, corn 17 per cent and soyabean 22 per cent. In contrast with other raw materials such as oil or aluminium which have plunged back to the levels of 2002-05, agricultural commodities are trading higher than they were just 12 to 18 months ago.

Over the medium term, the report states that “long-term resource scarcity trends, notably climate change, energy security and falling water availability” will put pressure on prices and production, together with “competition for land and higher demand resulting from increasing affluence and a growing population”.

The report recommends governments to invest more in agricultural production and an increase in international aid in this sphere, too.

Containing global warming will require an additional €175bn in annual investment by 2020, according to a European Union draft paper, writes Joshua Chaffin in Brussels.

The paper, which says much of the €175bn ($227bn, £167bn) investment will have to be borne by the developed world, also forecasts that tens of billions of euros in spending will be needed to help poorer countries prepare for even moderate warming.

Some of the ways that the EU proposes to raise those funds include requiring developed nations to pay for their annual carbon emissions, and levying taxes on aviation and maritime transportation. The EU should also expand its emissions trading system into a global carbon market and explore the establishment of a multilateral insurance pool to help deal with natural disasters that result from global warming.

The final paper, to be released by the European Commission, the EU executive body, on Wednesday, sets out the bloc’s position ahead of negotiations in Copenhagen this December aimed at creating a global agreement to fight climate change.

The Commission declined to comment on the draft, and people involved in negotiations said it was still under discussion.

The EU endorsed a plan in December to reduce the 27-nation bloc’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020. Member states and other developed countries are urged to increase that figure to 30 per cent.

©The Financial Times Limited 2009

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