First World Food Imports Threaten Global Water Supplies

Currently, 70% of fresh water supplies are used for agriculture, but it is estimated that food production requirements will increase by 40% by 2050, rendering water scarcity a major obstacle to feeding the world.

Since dietary habits are rapidly changing with higher consumption of meat and vegetables (particularly in both China & India) it looks as though we’re in for a shock unless we find new ways of growing grains & vegetables which would use less water.


Given the impending worsening of water security, particularly in some developing countries, water should really be at the centre of international development policy. But it isn’t. Instead we have a handful of multinationals snapping up water rights as it is set to become the next currency: for all intents and purposes it has already been commodified. There is no water blueprint for the future, not that I know of. I hope I’m wrong.

Bluntly, water stress occurs when the demand for water exceeds the available amount or when poor quality restricts its use. A March 2010 report by World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group found that the effects of water shortages are felt strongly by 700 Million people in 43 countries. The earth’s most affected areas where water reserves are disappearing include the Middle East, Northern China, India, Mexico, California, New Mexico, Arizona and more than two dozen countries in Africa, so we are a long way from water security.

The fourth Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference on Water ended in stalemate in Barcelona, Barcelona Province, Spain. French Secretary of State for European Affairs Pierre Lellouche explained that negotiations over a freshwater management strategy for the Mediterranean Basin had failed because of a quarrel between Israel and Arab countries over a reference to the Palestinian territories. Access to water is of crucial importance to around 290 million inhabitants of the region who could face shortages by 2025 because of the combined effects of population growth

This is not an issue that affects only developing countries, where water infrastructure is poor and where many people don’t have access to safe drinking water, but also closer to home, the developed world, where an ever growing demand simply can’t continue to be met. IMO, water for agriculture is not given a sufficient attention on the global stage as all the developed countries’ food supplies will be badly affected by incoming global water shortages. Then what? There’s a report I read last year, from Engineering the Future Alliance, a British engineers think-tank which estimates that the food industry is the most damaging polluter of world water sources. The reliance on food imports could contribute to rising food prices, damage the economy, and even contribute to conflicts caused by water scarcity, the report said (I urge you to read its summary in the link provided above).

Chairman of the working group Professor Peter Guthrie says:

“If the water crisis becomes critical it will pose a serious threat to the UK’s future development because of the impact it would have on our access to vital resources. Food prices would sky-rocket and economic growth would suffer. To prevent this we must recognise how the UK’s water footprint is impacting on global water scarcity. We should ask whether it is right to import green beans – or even roses – from a water-stressed region like Kenya, for example. The burgeoning demand from developed countries is putting severe pressure on areas that are already short of water. Our virtual water footprint is critical and we need to give it far more attention.


With most of the world’s glaciers melting at an unprecedented rate (here and here) it is disturbing to read that approximately 1,300 litres of water is needed to produce one kilogram of wheat and 15,500 litres of water is needed for one kilogram of beef. With those figures one does not need to be a rocket scientist to spot the “anomaly”.

Developing new, sustainable sources of water through technology: current methods include desalination, water recycling, reuse and harvesting however these do not take the energy-food-water nexus into account. Global Water Intelligence recently reported an extra 9.5 cubic metres of freshwater is being produced per day, mainly due to a marked increase in water desalination. Engineering the Future warns that desalination is currently extremely energy intensive and unless low carbon energy sources can be used it is not a sustainable solution. Further research is required to find sustainable solutions.

You might point out that there are several official and semi-official bodies like the IMF and the World Bank (among others) who exist only to do good things in this world…but look into the privatization and commodification agendas of the global water companies: their programs and policies are developed in unison with those entities who are supposed to be on our side. Look no further than this website to debunk some of those do-gooders…

Together these institutions (IMF, World Bank et cetera) encourage economic structural adjustment, privatization and market liberalization in emerging markets. Within the competitive global framework, developing countries are left with little choice other than to comply with the neoliberal agenda. As a result these countries are often left with crippling debt and a fragile economy. Meanwhile, foreign investors and multinational corporations gain control of a significant portion of the world’s resources, finance, services, technology and knowledge. Whilst these multinationals report record profits, around 50,000 people die each day from poverty.

Something to chew on: the increasing global concern over the limited supply of fresh water from conventional sources has led to great efforts towards the utilization of alternative water sources.

This entry was posted in Desertification, Ecology, Environmental Issue, Water and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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