Crisis underground: We're overharvesting water

Question: Since the year 1900, how many liters of water have been sucked from the world's underground aquifers

No water, no food... (photo by William Laurance)

No water, no food... (photo by William Laurance)

Answer: 4500 trillion.  That's 4500 cubic kilometers.  And we're currently draining away another 1000 cubic kilometers every year.

Why is this important?  Because in many parts of the world, agriculture and other human uses rely crucially on underground water supplies.

And in much of the world, we're exhausting those supplies.  This is becoming a crisis in many arid and semi-arid regions, where centuries of accumulated water are being quickly used up.

China, India, and the U.S. are the biggest over-consumers.  The worst-affected areas include the western U.S., Mexico, the northwestern Sahara, the Indus Basin, and the North China Plain.

What are the implications?  Among other things, higher food prices

As the human populace continues to climb, that will have an impact on us all. 

Water is a big concern today.  It'll be an even bigger worry tomorrow.

Is intensifying agriculture good or bad for nature?

It's a conundrum... should we intensify farming to get more food per acre, and thereby hope to spare wild lands for nature?  Or should we focus on extensive 'wildlife-friendly' farming that's less productive per acre but not so hard on biodiversity?

Do we want to turbocharge farming or make it wildlife-friendly?

Do we want to turbocharge farming or make it wildlife-friendly?

However, we might feel about this debate, many agronomists believe that intensifying agriculture is the only realistic way we're going to feed up to 11 billion people this century. 

In a new essay in Yale Environment 360, ALERT director Bill Laurance summarizes some of the pithy realities and tough choices ahead, especially for the tropics. 

The tropics are likely to be the epicenter of future agricultural expansion, because that's where crops grow the fastest, where land is the cheapest, and where human populations and food demand are increasing the fastest.

Of course, the tropics are also the epicenter of biodiversity--of life on Earth. 

Save a little land for me...

Save a little land for me...

The 21st century is going to bring truly remarkable changes.  The pressing question is: can we feed billions more people while also protecting the natural world?

 

Will we run out of food?

It's the year 2050.  Earth's population has just passed 9.5 billion and it's still climbing.  Africa's population has quadrupled, and global food demand is now twice what it was in 2014. 

Will there be enough food for everyone?

Food for today, but what about tomorrow? (photo by William Laurance)

Food for today, but what about tomorrow? (photo by William Laurance)

As daunting as it sounds, that is the reality we'll soon be facing, according to demographers and food-security experts.  And it gets worse.

To feed our burgeoning populace, we'll need to turbocharge agriculture--transforming vast areas of relatively unproductive smallholder farms to bigger, more efficient, industrial-style farms.

But modern farms demand a great deal of energy, and energy prices will surely rise in future.  As energy prices go up, food prices will go up.

Worldwide, billions of people already devote much of their income to food.  What will happen if food prices rise sharply--perhaps doubling?

That's the focus of an essay by ALERT director Bill Laurance, which just appeared in Ensia Magazine

Entitled "Food + Energy = Crisis?", it asks tough questions about the future--and has two urgent implications for how we manage our world today.

Why are we so afraid to talk about human population?

When it comes to the environment, human population is the 900-pound gorilla in the corner.  I know this from first hand--I once got into hot water for a New Scientist piece that slammed conservatives in the U.S. for failing to support family planning.

People are great, but enough already... (photo by William Laurance)

People are great, but enough already... (photo by William Laurance)

Now, in a provocative essay, Jonathan Porritt asks why is nearly everyone--including most leading environmental groups--so reticent to talk about population?

It's a good question.  According to the U.N. Population Division, Earth's population is projected to peak at nearly 11 billion people this century. 

Africa will have 400% more mouths to feed, according to the U.N.  Nigeria--already teetering on the edge of social and economic chaos--will have five times its present population.

These are incredible figures, and they underscore momentous challenges ahead--for global food security, social welfare, immigration and national security issues, and of course the environment.

The challenge is growing.  According to a recent analysis by Leontine Alkema and colleagues, by 2015 nearly a billion women will need contraception or will have an unmet need for contraception.  This number is rapidly increasing, especially in developing nations.

Demographers like Alkema keep saying the same thing: One of the smartest long-term investments we can make today is in family-planning and contraception, especially where population growth is fastest and most likely to be destabilizing in the long term.  A good place to start is Africa.

We need a lot more talk--and action--on population.

-Bill Laurance