EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 3. Emerging Water Shortages: Scarcity Crossing National Borders

Historically, water scarcity was a local issue. It was up to national governments to balance water supply and demand. Now this is changing as scarcity crosses national boundaries via the international grain trade. Since producing one ton of grain takes 1,000 tons of water (1,000 cubic meters), as noted earlier, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. Countries are, in effect, using grain to balance their water books. Similarly, trading in grain futures is in a sense trading in water futures. 66

After China and India, there is a second tier of countries with large water deficits—Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Mexico, and Pakistan. Three of these—Algeria, Egypt, and Mexico—already import much of their grain. However, in a parallel move with China, water-short Pakistan abruptly turned to the world market in 2004 for imports of 1.5 million tons of wheat. Its need for imports is likely to climb in the years ahead. 67

The Middle East and North Africa—from Morocco in the west through Iran in the east—has become the world’s fastest-growing grain import market. The demand for grain is driven both by rapid population growth and by rising affluence, much of the latter derived from the export of oil. With virtually every country in the region pressing against its water limits, the growing urban demand for water can be satisfied only by taking irrigation water from agriculture. 68

Egypt, with some 74 million people, has become a major importer of wheat in recent years, vying with Japan—traditionally the leading wheat importer—for the top spot. It now imports 40 percent of its total grain supply, a number that edges steadily upward as its population outgrows the grain harvest produced with the Nile’s water. 69

Algeria, with 33 million people, imports more than half of its grain, which means that the water embodied in the imported grain exceeds the use of water for all purposes from domestic sources. Because of its heavy dependence on imports, Algeria is particularly vulnerable to disruptions, such as grain export embargoes. 70

Overall, the water required to produce the grain and other farm products imported into the Middle East and North Africa last year equaled the annual flow of the Nile River at Aswan. In effect, the region’s water deficit can be thought of as another Nile flowing into the region in the form of imported grain. 71

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

Knowing where grain import needs will be concentrated tomorrow requires looking at where water deficits are developing today. Thus far, the countries importing much of their grain have been smaller ones. Now we are looking at fast-growing water deficits in both China and India, each with more than a billion people. 72

Each year the gap between world water consumption and the sustainable water supply widens. Each year the drop in the water table 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 many water-short countries.

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66. FAO, op. cit. note 13.

67. Grain production from USDA, op. cit. note 5; Jonathan Watts, “No Longer Self-Sufficient in Food, the Country Today Has to Buy Abroad, Raising Global Prices: China’s Farmers Cannot Feed Hungry Cities,” Guardian, 26 August 2004; Peter Goodman, “A New Use for Good Earth: Chinese Farmers Pay Price in Drive to Build Golf Centers,” Washington Post, 13 April 2004; Jim Yardley, “China Races to Reverse Falling Grain Production, “ New York Times, 2 May 2004; population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1.

68. Grain from USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service, Grain: World Markets and Trade (Washington, DC: various years).

69. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; grain production from USDA, op. cit. note 5.

70. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; grain production from USDA, op. cit. note 5.

71. Nile River flow from Postel, op. cit. note 33, p. 77; grain imports from USDA, op. cit. note 5; calculation based on 1,000 tons of water for 1 ton of grain from FAO, op. cit. note 13.

72. Population from United Nations, op. cit. note 1; grain production from USDA, op. cit. note 5.

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