EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. 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 it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, 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. 60

After China and India, there is a second tier of smaller countries with large water deficits— Algeria, Egypt, Mexico, and Pakistan. Algeria, Egypt, and Mexico already import much of their grain. With its population outgrowing its water supply, Pakistan too may soon turn to world markets for grain. 61

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 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. 62

Egypt , with some 75 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 close to 40 percent of its total grain supply, a dependence that reflects a population that is outgrowing the grain harvest produced with the Nile’s water. Algeria, with 34 million people, imports well over half of its grain. 63

Overall, the water required to produce the grain and other farm products imported into the Middle East and North Africa last year approached 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 food. 64

It is often said that future wars in the Middle East will more likely be fought over water than oil, but in reality 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 deficits 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. 65

As noted earlier, overpumping is a way of satisfying growing food demand that virtually guarantees a future drop in food production when aquifers are depleted. Many countries are in essence creating a “food bubble economy”—one in which food production is artificially inflated by the unsustainable mining of groundwater. At what point does water scarcity translate into food scarcity?

David Seckler and his colleagues at the International Water Management Institute, the world’s premier water research group, summarized this issue well: “Many of the most populous countries of the world—China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and nearly all the countries of the Middle East and North Africa—have literally been having a free ride over the past two or three decades by depleting their groundwater resources. The penalty for mismanagement of this valuable resource is now coming due and it is no exaggeration to say that the results could be catastrophic for these countries and, given their importance, for the world as a whole.” 66

Since expanding irrigation helped triple the world grain harvest from 1950 to 2000, it comes as no surprise that water losses can shrink harvests. With water for irrigation, many countries are in a classic overshoot-and-decline mode. If countries that are overpumping do not move quickly to raise water use efficiency and stabilize water tables, then an eventual drop in food production may be inevitable. 67

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60. FAO, op. cit. note 10.

61. Grain from USDA, op. cit. note 2.

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

63. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 1; grain from USDA, op. cit. note 2.

64. Nile River flow from Postel, op. cit. note 16, p. 77; grain imports from USDA, op. cit. note 2; calculation based on 1,000 tons of water for 1 ton of grain from FAO, op. cit. note 10.

65. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 1; grain from USDA, op. cit. note 2.

66. David Seckler, David Molden, and Randolph Barker, “Water Scarcity in the Twenty-First Century,” Water Brief 1 (Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute, 1999), p. 2.

67. USDA, op. cit. note 2; FAO, op. cit. note 16.


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