EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures

Chapter 6. Stabilizing Water Tables: Scarcity Crossing National Boundaries

Historically, water shortages were local, but today scarcity is crossing national boundaries via the international grain trade. As just described, countries facing shortages divert water from irrigation to satisfy the growing demand in cities, and then import grain to offset the loss of farm output. The reason for this is simple: since it takes a thousand tons of water to produce a ton of grain, the most efficient way to import water is as grain. In effect, countries are using grain as a currency to balance their water books. Trading in grain futures is in a sense trading in water futures. 28

The fastest-growing grain import market in the world in recent years has been North Africa and the Middle East. The demand for grain there is growing quickly as a result of both rapid population growth and rising affluence, much of it derived from the export of oil. Virtually every country in this region is pushing against the limits of local water supplies. To meet growing water needs in cities, governments routinely divert irrigation water from agriculture. 29

Last year the water required to produce the grain and other farm products brought into the region equaled the annual flow of the Nile River. In effect, the water deficit in the region can be thought of as another Nile flowing into North Africa and the Middle East in the form of imported grain. 30

It has been fashionable in recent years to say that future wars in the Middle East are more likely to be fought over water than over oil. But it is not only costly to win a water war, it is difficult to secure water supplies by winning. In reality, the wars over water are taking place in world grain markets. It is the countries that are financially strongest—not those that are militarily strongest—that will prevail in this competition.

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28. Water-to-grain conversion from FAO, op. cit. note 1.

29. Hans Lofgren and Alan Richards, “Food Security, Poverty, and Economic Policy in the Middle East and North Africa,” TMD Discussion Paper 111 (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, February 2003); IWMI, “Trade as a Means to Food and Water Security,” GWP Issues Paper (Sri Lanka: 13–16 December 2000).

30. Nile River flow from Postel, op. cit. note 13; grain imports from USDA, Production, Supply, and Distribution, op. cit. note 4; calculation based on 1,000 tons of water for 1 ton of grain from FAO, op. cit. note 1.


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