Commentary: A world at war over water? It could happen…

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Editor's note: The following commentary was written by Mike Barnett, Director of Publications for the Texas Farm Bureau and was originally posted on the Texas Agriculture Talks website.

irrigation spraying water Earth is facing a looming water crisis and the consequences could spell war in an ever thirstier world.

That’s the consensus of the InterAction Council (IC), a group of 40 former heads of state and former government, academic and foundation leaders.

Look what’s happening here in Texas and you can easily see the causes for concern.

Last year’s drought (ongoing in many parts of the state) brought home to most everyone that water is a limited resource in parts of Texas. Many municipalities continue to scramble to supply their residents while irrigation supplies have been shut off for rice farmers along the Gulf Coast. The “blame game” finger has already started pointing at agriculture, the biggest user of water.

The problems will intensify as municipalities, industry and agriculture must share a finite amount of water as the population in Texas is expected to soar over the next three decades.

Take what’s happening in Texas and multiply it on a worldwide scale and you see the potential for conflict.

The IC says there will be an additional 1 billion mouths to feed by 2050. This means the world must find the equivalent of 20 Nile Rivers or 100 Colorado Rivers to provide the water to grow the necessary food. That’s a lot of water.

The greatest demand will be for agriculture and industry in the United States and in the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

Maybe world agriculture will follow Texas’ lead in more efficient water use in agriculture. Irrigated farm acres  in Texas declined 18 percent from 1974 to 2008 while the total amount of water used for irrigation dropped 32 percent. At the same time, irrigated corn yields increased 46 percent (from 1981) and cotton yields tripled from 1974 to 2010.

Texas agriculture continues to do more with less and farmers continually strive to be more efficient. The world will have to do the same. But even that isn’t enough.

New technologies must be developed: breeding more drought-resistant plants, developing new irrigation techniques, finding new sources of water such as desalination and conserving better what we do have.

The alternative is ugly. No water means no food. Does that means hungry nations will fight to survive in wars over water? 

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pa  |  September, 18, 2012 at 01:17 PM

The technology would not be difficult to develop, it would be expensive though. What we are lacking is the will or resolve to address this issue now. Water can be desalinated, water systems (rivers, estuaries, reservoirs, lakes, etc.) can be remediated to address these issues. Engineers can develop on farm technologies and practices to conserve and recycle water much more efficiently than what is done today. All of this will take funding, some time to develop and more time and dollars to refine and implement - but it is not undo-able. Once USA develops capability, we can assist other nations to develop improved water conservation, retention and remediation plans and practices. This will help with global stability and national security for all nations. For example, instead of the billions of dollars spent on Chesapeake Bay planning of regulatory and enforcement policy development, public funding should be diverted or shared with private sector firms and engineers perhaps in the form of tax credit incentives and research and development grants, etc. to develop and implement the other side of the equation (restoration and remediation within the water systems)- we would see more progress for all concerned (ag, environment, community development and industry). This issue needs to continue to be brought up for debate, planning and action. Why wait for "wars" and fingerpointing to decide to tackle the tough issues?

Batavia, NY  |  September, 21, 2012 at 09:30 PM

It seems that locating cities, dairy farms and cheese processors in the desert of Texas was not a good idea. Who knew????

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