EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 2. Emerging Water Shortages: Scarcity Crossing National Borders

Historically water scarcity was a local issue. It was up to national governments to balance the supply of and demand for water. Now this is changing as scarcity crosses national boundaries via the international grain trade. One of the consequences of economic globalization is that water scarcity anywhere can affect people everywhere.

The Middle East and North Africa—from Morocco in the west through Iran in the east—has emerged as the world's fastest-growing grain import market. Virtually every country in the region is pressing against the limits of its water supply. In this situation, the growing demand for water in cities and industry can be satisfied only by taking irrigation water from agriculture.

Iran and Egypt, each with some 70 million people, have become leading importers of wheat, in recent years vying with Japan—traditionally the leading wheat importer—for the top spot. Both countries now import 40 percent of their total grain supply.49

Algeria, with 31 million people, imports some 75 percent of its grain, which means that the water used to produce the imported grain exceeds water consumption from domestic sources. Because of its heavy dependence on imports, Algeria is particularly vulnerable to disruptions, such as grain export embargoes.50

It is often said that future wars in the Middle East will more likely be fought over water than over oil, but the competition for water is taking place in world grain markets. It is the countries that are financially the strongest, not necessarily those that are militarily the strongest, that are likely to fare best in this competition.

If we want to know where grain import needs will be concentrated tomorrow, we should look at where water deficits are developing today. Thus far, the countries importing a large share of their grain have been small or medium-sized nations. Now for the first time we are looking at fast-growing water deficits in both China and India, each with more than a billion people. As of 2002, both countries have small exportable grain surpluses, but in both cases they are based on overpumping aquifers.51

This situation is not likely to last much longer. Each year the gap between water consumption and the sustainable water supply widens. Each year the drop in water tables is greater than the year before. Both aquifer depletion and the diversion of water to cities will contribute to the growing irrigation water deficit and hence to a growing grain deficit in these countries.

After China and India, there is a second tier of smaller countries with large water deficits—Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, and Pakistan. Four of these already import a large share of their grain. Only Pakistan remains self-sufficient. But with a population expanding by 4 million a year, it will also likely soon turn to the world market for grain.52

When will the population giants turn to the world market for a large share of their grain? No one knows for sure. The diversion of water to cities, a gradual process, is likely to continue expanding for the indefinite future, given projected urbanization trends. The final depletion of aquifers could be abrupt and less predictable simply because we do not know how much water remains in many aquifers.

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49. Ibid.; grain imports from USDA, op. cit. note 8.

50. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 8; grain imports from USDA, op. cit. note 8.

51. Grain surpluses from USDA, op. cit. note 8.

52. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 8.


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