EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 2. Population Pressure: Land and Water: Farmers Losing Water to Cities

The world’s freshwater supplies are shrinking, and the world’s farmers are getting a shrinking share of this shrinking supply. While water tensions among countries are more likely to make news headlines, 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, it takes 1,000 tons of water to grow a ton of wheat. In countries preoccupied with expanding the economy and creating jobs, agriculture becomes the residual claimant. 50

Many of the world’s largest cities, such as Los Angeles, Cairo, and New Delhi, can increase their water consumption only by taking it from agriculture. This rural-urban competition for underground water resources is intensifying throughout India. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chennai (formerly Madras), a city of 7 million in southern 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. 51

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 region’s 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. 52

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. 53

In the U.S. southern Great Plains and the Southwest, where there is little unclaimed water, 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 each issue 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. 54

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. 55

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. And 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, and with sparse rainfall, 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. Irrigated area in California shrank 10 percent between 1997 and 2007 as farmers sold their irrigation water to cities. 56

Whether it is outright government expropriation, farmers being outbid by cities, or cities simply drilling deeper wells than farmers can afford, tillers of the land are losing the water war.

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 so much water to produce grain, 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. To the extent there is a world water market, it is embodied in the grain market. 57

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. 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. Egypt has become the leading importer of wheat in recent years. It now imports close to 40 percent of its total grain supply, a dependence that reflects a population that is outgrowing the grain harvest that can be produced with the Nile’s water. Algeria, with 34 million people, imports more than 70 percent of its grain. 58

Overall, the water required to produce the grain and other farm products imported into the Middle East and North Africa last year exceeded 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. 59

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. Beyond this, several countries in the region are now attempting to acquire land in other countries and, what is more important, the water that comes with it.

Knowing where water deficits are developing today tells us where grain deficits will be concentrated tomorrow. Thus far, the countries importing much of their grain have been smaller ones. Now we are looking at the growing water deficits in both China and India, each with more than a billion people. At what point does water scarcity translate into food scarcity? 60

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50. Water to make steel from Sandra Postel, Last Oasis (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), pp. 38–39; 1,000 tons of water for 1 ton of grain from FAO, Yield Response to Water (Rome: 1979).

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 50, p. 137; Pramit Mitra, “Running on Empty: India’s Water Crisis Could Threaten Prosperity,” South Asia Monitor, no. 103 (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8 February 2007); R. Srinivasan, “The Politics of Water,” Info Change Agenda, issue 3 (October 2005); U.N. Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision Population Database, at esa.un.org/unup, updated 2008.

52. Srinivasan, op. cit. note 51; Pearce, op. cit. note 41.

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

54. Gollehon and Quinby, op. cit. note 51; Water Strategist, various issues, at www.waterstrategist.com.

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

56. 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; USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), “Table 10. Irrigation 2002 and 1997,” 2002 Census of Agriculture, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: June 2004), pp. 318–26; USDA, NASS, “Table 10. Irrigation: 2007 and 2002,” 2007 Census of Agriculture, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: February 2009), pp. 372–80.

57. FAO, op. cit. note 50.

58. Grain from USDA, Foreign Agricultural Service, Grain: World Markets and Trade (Washington, DC: various years); USDA, op. cit. note 2.

59. Nile River flow from Postel, op. cit. note 44, p. 71; 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 50.

60. U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 8; USDA, op. cit. note 2.

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