The coming global water shortage

Aquifers in India are being sucked dry Several decades ago, farmers in the Indian state of Gujarat used oxen to haul water in buckets from a few feet below the surface. Now they pump it from 1,000 feet below the surface. That may sound good, but they have been drawing water from the earth to feed a mushrooming population at such a terrific rate that ancient aquifers have been sucked dry — turning once-fertile fields slowly into sand.

According to New Scientist magazine, farmers using crude oilfield technology in India have drilled 21 million "tube wells" into the strata beneath the fields, and every year millions more wells throughout the region — all the way to Vietnam — are being dug to service water-needy crops like rice and sugar cane. The magazine quoted research from the annual Stockholm Water Symposium that the pumps that transformed Indian farming are drawing 200 cubic kilometers of water to the surface each year, while only a fraction is replaced by monsoon rains. At this rate, the research suggested, groundwater supplies in some areas will be exhausted in five to 10 years, and millions of Indians will see their farmland turned to desert.

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In China, the magazine reported, 30 cubic kilometers more water is being pumped to the surface each year than is replaced by rain — one of the reasons that the country has become dependent on grain imports from the West. This is not just an issue for agriculture. Earlier this year, the Indian state of Kerala ordered the PepsiCo (PEP, news, msgs) and Coca-Cola (KO, news, msgs) bottling plants closed due to water shortages, costing the companies millions of dollars.

In this country, shareholder activists already are lobbying companies to share water-dependency concerns worldwide with their stakeholders in their financial statements.

Water, water everywhere, but . . .
The central problem is that less than 2% of the world’s ample store of water is fresh. And that amount is bombarded by industrial pollution, disease and cyclical shifts in rain patterns. Its increasing scarcity has impelled private companies and countries to attempt to lock up rights to key sources. In an article last month, the Christian Science Monitor suggested that the next decade may see a cartel of water-exporting countries rivaling the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for dominance in the world economy.

"Water is blue gold; it’s terribly precious," Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, told the Monitor. “Not too far in the future, we’re going to see a move to surround and commodify the world’s fresh water. Just as they’ve divvied up the world’s oil, in the coming century, there’s going to be a grab."