EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Emerging Water Shortages: Farmers Losing to Cities

Water tensions among countries are more likely to make the headlines, but it is the jousting for water between cities and farms within countries that preoccupies local political leaders. The economics of water use do not favor farmers in this competition, simply because it takes so much water to produce food. For example, while it takes only 14 tons of water to make a ton of steel worth $560, it takes 1,000 tons of water to grow a ton of wheat worth $200. In countries preoccupied with expanding the economy and creating jobs, agriculture becomes the residual claimant. 50

Many of the world’s largest cities are located in watersheds where all available water is being used. Cities in such watersheds, such as Mexico City, Cairo, and Beijing, can increase their water consumption only by importing water from other basins or taking it from agriculture. Increasingly the world’s cities are meeting their growing needs by taking irrigation water from farmers. Among the U.S. cities doing so are San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, and El Paso. 51

The competition between farmers and cities for underground water resources is intensifying throughout India. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chennai (formerly Madras), a city of 7 million on the east coast of south India. As a result of the city government’s inability to supply water for some of the city’s residents, a thriving tank-truck industry has emerged that buys water from farmers and hauls it to the city’s thirsty residents. 52

For farmers surrounding the city, the price of water far exceeds the value of the crops they can produce with it. Unfortunately, the 13,000 tankers hauling the water to Chennai are mining the underground water resources. Water tables are falling and shallow wells have gone dry. Eventually even the deeper wells will go dry, depriving these communities of both their food supply and their livelihood. 53

Chinese farmers along the Juma River downstream from Beijing discovered in 2004 that the river had suddenly stopped flowing. A diversion dam had been built near the capital to take river water for Yanshan Petrochemical, a state-owned industry. Although the farmers protested bitterly, it was a losing battle. For the 120,000 villagers downstream from the diversion dam, the loss of water could cripple their ability to make a living from farming. 54

Literally hundreds of cities in other countries are meeting their growing water needs by taking the water that farmers count on. In western Turkey, for example, the historic city of Izmir now relies heavily on well fields (a network of wells connected by pipe) from the neighboring agricultural district of Manisa. 55

In the U.S. southern Great Plains and Southwest, where virtually all water is now spoken for, the growing water needs of cities and thousands of small towns can be satisfied only by taking water from agriculture. A monthly publication from California, The Water Strategist, devotes several pages to a listing of water sales that took place in the western United States during the preceding month. Scarcely a working day goes by without another sale. A University of Arizona study of over 2,000 of these water transfers from 1987 to 2005 reported that at least 8 out of 10 were by individual farmers or irrigation districts to cities and municipalities. 56

Colorado has one of the world’s most active water markets. Fast-growing cities and towns in a state with high immigration are buying irrigation water rights from farmers and ranchers. In the upper Arkansas River basin, which occupies the southeastern quarter of the state, Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver) have already bought water rights to one third of the basin’s farmland. Aurora has purchased rights to water that was once used to irrigate 9,600 hectares (23,000 acres) of cropland in the Arkansas valley. 57

Far larger purchases are being made by cities in California. In 2003, San Diego bought annual rights to 247 million tons (200,000 acre-feet) of water from farmers in the nearby Imperial Valley—the largest farm-to-city water transfer in U.S. history. This agreement covers the next 75 years. In 2004, the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to 18 million southern Californians in several cities, negotiated the purchase of 137 million tons of water per year from farmers for the next 35 years. Without irrigation water, the highly productive land owned by these farmers is wasteland. The farmers who are selling their water rights would like to continue farming, but city officials are offering far more for the water than the farmers could possibly earn by irrigating crops. 58

Whether it is outright government expropriation, farmers being outbid by cities, or cities simply drilling deeper wells than farmers can afford, the world’s farmers are losing the water war. They are faced with not only a shrinking water supply in many situations but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply. Slowly but surely, fast-growing cities are siphoning water from the world’s farmers even as they try to feed some 70 million more people each year. 59

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50. Water to make steel from Postel, op. cit. note 33; 1,000 tons of water for 1 ton of grain from FAO, op. cit. note 10; price of steel from International Monetary Fund, International Financial Statistics, at ifs.apdi.net, July 2007; wheat prices from Chicago Board of Trade, “Market Commentaries,” various dates, at www.cbot.com.

51. Noel Gollehon and William Quinby, “Irrigation in the American West: Area, Water and Economic Activity,” Water Resources Development, vol. 16, no. 2 (2000), pp. 187–95; Postel, op. cit. note 33, p. 137.

52. R. Srinivasan, “The Politics of Water,” Info Change Agenda, issue 3 (October 2005); U. N. Population Division, op. cit. note 49.

53. Srinivasan, op. cit. note 52; Pearce, op. cit. note 11.

54. “ China Politics: Growing Tensions Over Scarce Water,” The Economist, 21 June 2004.

55. Shah et al., op. cit. note 30.

56. Gollehon and Quinby, op. cit. note 51; The Water Strategist, various issues, at www.waterstrategist.com; Jedidiah Brewer et al., “Water Markets in the West: Prices, Trading and Contractual Forms,” Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 07-07 (8 February 2007).

57. Arkansas River basin from Joey Bunch, “Water Projects Forecast to Fall Short of Needs: Study Predicts 10% Deficit in State,” Denver Post, 22 July 2004.

58. Dean Murphy, “Pact in West Will Send Farms’ Water to Cities,” New York Times, 17 October 2003; Tim Molloy, “California Water District Approves Plan to Pay Farmers for Irrigation Water,” Associated Press, 13 May 2004.

59. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 1.


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