Ultimate Question

by Juan L. Mercado

“There are only two families in the world,” mused “Don Quijote” author Miguel de Cervantes. “The haves and the have-nots.”

To be a water “have-not” is lethal. There is no substitute for water. Everyone, on average, drinks four liters of water daily in one form or another—or wither. As a Filipino proverb says, Pag walang tubig na linaw,  iinumin kahit labo. “If there is no clean water, one drinks even the murky.”

In Southeast Asia, availability of water per person has slumped to 55 percent, notes the Asian Development Bank. Larger populations use more water with high levels of waste, including irrigation. Runoffs are “not captured” even as institutions lag in optimizing water use. Conflicts are surging. “Water security is a key issue for survival.”

Each Filipino has 4,476 liters of “internal renewable resources.” Compare that to each Malaysian’s 21,259 liters. Cebu City siphons twice what its aquifers can recharge. In China, India and the Philippines, the total availability of water per person per year has slumped below 1,700 cubic meters. That’s the global threshold for water stress.

Summers are now longer and cloudbursts more frequent, University of Washington scientists warn. The equatorial band of rains has shifted.

“The threat to our future is peak water,” Lester Brown cautions in an Observer article. “As the population grew, over pumping in some nations reached peak water. That threatens food supply.”

Brown heads the Earth Policy Institute. In his latest book “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Politics of Food Scarcity,” he writes: “The bottom line is water constraints augmented by loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, a plateauing of yields plus climate change. They cripple expansion of food production. The ultimate question is: Will current trends lead to a cessation in the world grain harvest?”

Harvests shrivel in some countries because of aquifer depletion. They shrink in other nations due to soil erosion. Today, roughly 40 percent of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land—which expanded sevenfold from 10 million hectares in 1950. “This is historically unique… Since then, expansion has come to a near standstill.”

Farmers draw irrigation water either from rivers or underground aquifers. Some are replenished by rainfall. Another type consists of water laid down eons ago, and thus does not recharge. Two strategically important ones are under the North China Plain and the US Great Plains.

“Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, overdraw from their aquifers.” These include the three grain giants: China, India and the United States. The question is not whether water shortages will affect future harvests in these countries. It is when they will do so.

“Water is the driving force of all nature,” Leonardo da Vinci once wrote. The Arab Middle East today reels from the collision between population growth and water supply at regional level. “For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region. There is nothing in sight to arrest the decline.”

Over pumping leads to aquifer depletion. “In the short run, peak water can lead to peak grain. For some countries this is no longer merely a theoretical possibility. It is a reality … in Iran and Pakistan. Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest.”

Nowhere are slumping water tables and shriveling of irrigated agriculture more dramatic than in Saudi Arabia, “a country as water-poor as it is oil-rich.” Riyadh announced, in 2008, that its aquifers were largely depleted. It scaled back wheat planting by one-eighth each year. That will go on until 2016, when parched farms close down.

By then, Saudi Arabia projects it will be swapping oil for 15 million tons of wheat, rice and other cereals. Brown adds: “It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.”

In Asia, births and migrants swell city populations by the size of Seattle every three days. Will residents be split between water haves and have-nots? And what can be done?

Leaders must face the fact that the era of abundant resources is over. Deepening scarcities are here to stay. Policies need to address underlying causes, not symptoms. Polluter-pay rules, for example, must be adopted. Strip subsidies. Price scarce resources, like water, at their real cost. This shifts policy away from top-down edicts to incentives for conservation management.

“Singapore and Israel do a great job of conserving water,” notes the ADB’s Arjun Thapansays. They set realistic tariffs and ensure that wastewater is treated and reused. Reforms don’t come cheap. Curbing ecological plunder affects the wallets of the haves—like pork scam artists in Congress. But reforms postponed cost more over the long haul.

The have-nots are victims. Most can’t afford illness from dirty water or thin harvests. They inflict havoc by poaching, overfishing, or felling trees to secure the next meal. They have few options. “Attention is shifting away from physical limits to growth,” the World Bank notes. It now focuses on “incentives for human behavior.”

The divide between the haves and have-nots can be bridged. “Nothing is more flexible than water,” Chinese philosopher Lao Tze once wrote. “Yet, nothing can resist it.”

A cup of clean water for a kid in a remote barangay is worth more than the 21—or is it 23?—pills that the doctor says Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile must gobble daily. He is therefore in no shape to be jailed on plunder charges.

Yet, wasn’t it just yesterday that JPE bragged of his still raging libido to reporters? “May asim pa,” he joshed. Wink, wink.

E-mail: juanlmercado@gmail.com

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