EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 2. Signs of Stress: Climate & Water: Introduction

On August 19, 2000, the New York Times reported that an icebreaker cruise ship had reached the North Pole only to discover this famous frozen site was now open water. For a generation that grew up reading the harrowing accounts of explorers such as American Richard Byrd trying to reach the North Pole as they battled bitter cold, ice, and snow, this new view taxed the imagination.1

In its many earlier trips to the North Pole, the cruise ship had allowed passengers to disembark in order to be photographed standing on the ice. This time, the ship had to move several miles away to find ice thick enough for the photo session. If the explorers of a century or so ago had been trekking to the North Pole in the summer of 2000, they would have had to swim the last few miles.

Media reports of melting ice typically focus on individual glaciers or ice caps, but the ice is melting almost everywhere. Given that the 14 warmest years since recordkeeping began in 1866 have all occurred since 1980, this does not come as a surprise.2

Water shortages are also in the news. Some of the world's major rivers are being drained dry, failing to reach the sea. Among them is the Colorado, the major river in the southwestern United States. In China, the Yellow River, the northernmost of the country's two major rivers, no longer reaches the sea for part of each year. In Central Asia, the Amu Darya sometimes fails to reach the Aral Sea because it has been drained dry by upstream irrigation.3

Wells are going dry on every continent. As population expands and incomes rise, the demand for water is simply outrunning the supply in many countries. Those with money drill deeper wells, chasing the water table downward. Those unable to deepen their wells are left in a difficult position.

The situation promises to become far more precarious, since the 3.2 billion people being added to world population by 2050 will be born in countries already facing water scarcity. With 40 percent of the world food supply coming from irrigated land, water scarcity directly affects food security. If we are facing a future of water scarcity, we are also facing a future of food scarcity.4

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1. John Noble Wilford, "Ages-Old Icecap at North Pole Is Now Liquid, Scientists Find," New York Times, 19 August 2000.

2. J. Hansen, "Global Temperature Anomalies in .01 C," www.giss.nasa.gov/data/update/gistemp, viewed 8 June 2001.

3. Sandra Postel, Last Oasis, rev. ed. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997).

4. Population estimate for 2050 is medium-variant estimate from United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision (New York: February 2001); share of food from irrigated cropland from World Resources Institute (WRI), World Resources 2000-2001 (Washington, DC: 2001), p. 64 .


Copyright © 2001 Earth Policy Institute