Population Matters

Update on Asia’s Water Crisis

August 21st, 2009

A new report (“Revitalizing Asia’s Irrigation:  To Sustainably Meet Tomorrow’s Food Needs”) released this week by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) warns that “without major reforms and innovations in the way water is used for agriculture, many developing nations face the politically risky prospect of having to import more than a quarter of the rice, wheat and maize they will need by 2050.”

With shrinking water levels and a population expected to increase by 1.5 billion over the next 40 years, the report notes that Asia requires “dramatic increases in water productivity.”  And because the scenarios presented in the report do not factor in climate change, which is expected to increase drought and flooding, the IWMI warned that “even the study’s pessimistic assumptions may prove overly optimistic…”

Because of growing population and greater consumption of meat and dairy products, FAO and IWMI are projecting that Asia’s food and feed demand will double by 2050.  To meet that demand, the report projects that farmers will have to increase by 30 percent the amount of irrigated farmland in South Asia, and 47 percent in East Asia, and “Without water productivity gains South Asia would need 57 percent more water for irrigated agriculture and East Asia 70 percent more.”

What concerns agricultural experts more than anything else is what one observer called “an alarming rate of groundwater depletion.”  As a result of the intensive irrigation that was introduced in India and China and other parts of Asia during the Green Revolution, underground aquifers in many areas are being rapidly depleted, forcing farmers to drill deeper and deeper for water.  Recent reports also indicate that the glaciers of the Himalayas, which provide much needed water runoff in the growing season, are receding due to global warming and may be gone entirely by 2035.

Unless Asian farmers rapidly increase water productivity, many Asian governments will have to boost food imports. The report warns, however, that relying upon on trade to meet a large part of the demand for grain would “impose a huge and politically untenable burden on the economies of many developing countries.”

A large boost in Asian food imports–assuming the demand could be met–would not just boost world grain prices, it would also accelerate the destruction of forests  and the loss of biohabitats in other parts of the world.   This is a report that demands the attention of policymakers everywhere.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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