Sunday, February 7, 1999
BBC News Online

Water shortage threatens harvests

Water shortages mean insufficient grain to feed rising populations

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

A report to be published in the United Kingdom on February 11, 1999 will say there is evidence that water tables are falling on every continent across the world. The disclosure comes in the 1999 State of the World report, published by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

Between 1991 and 1996, the report says, the water table under the north China plain dropped by an average of 1.5m (5ft) a year. The area produces nearly 40% of China's grain harvest.

Reserves threatened

According to the report, the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI) in Sri Lanka says the water tables almost everywhere in India are falling at between one and three metres (from three to 10ft) each year. The IIMI estimates that India is using its underground water reserves at least twice as fast as they are being replenished. When the reserves run out, it says, India's grain harvest could fall by as much as a quarter.

India's population, now almost 1billion people, is expected, on present trends, to grow by a further 500 million in the next half century.

The contents of the report were announced by the director of the Worldwatch Institute, Dr Lester Brown, at a workshop in Hungary for environment journalists from central and eastern Europe. He said that China and India were two countries with high population growth which also faced the prospect of severe constraints on development. If the Chinese wanted to match per capita consumption of beef in the USA, said Dr Brown, they would have to import an extra 340m tonnes of grain annually. That amount equals the entire US grain harvest in any given year. And in a water-scarce world, it would be very difficult to increase grain yields.

Heat record

"It takes 1,000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of wheat", said Dr Brown. "In a few years, water scarcity will have been translated into food scarcity." He said the effects of climate change had become more marked in 1998, in areas other than shortages of water. That had been the hottest year on record, and it had also registered a record increase in temperature over the previous warmest year. The cost of the damage caused by extreme weather linked to climate change in 1998 had been $89billion. That was a 46% increase on 1996, the next most expensive year.

'Tremendous risks'

Dr Brown said 300m people, more than the combined populations of the USA and Canada, had been displaced by the weather. These "environmental refugees" had been mainly from China, Bangladesh, and central America.

What had been happening meant that some parts of the world would almost certainly become uninsurable, because insurers would refuse to underwrite the tremendous risks involved. And there would be profound effects on real estate dealing, and on investment patterns.

Forest fires

The Worldwatch report says the clear trend is for climate change to intensify.

Dr Brown said studies by the Scripps Oceanographic Institute showed that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the
atmosphere rose again in 1998, by 0.3 parts per million (ppm).

Before the industrial revolution, the concentration was about 280ppm. It now stands at about 365ppm.

Dr Brown said studies showed that last year's forest fires in Indonesia accounted for more CO2 emissions than the whole of European industry.

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