Saturday, July 28, 2007

Water gets scarcer

From a recent article by Lester Brown. Read it in the context of reduced food supplies and increasing grain prices.

"Saudi Arabia, a country of 25 million people, is as water-poor as it is oil-rich. Relying heavily on subsidies, it developed an extensive irrigated agriculture based largely on its deep fossil aquifer. After several years of using oil money to support wheat prices at five times the world market level, the government was forced to face fiscal reality and cut the subsidies. Its wheat harvest dropped from a high of 4 million tons in 1992 to some 2 million tons in 2005. Some Saudi farmers are now pumping water from wells that are 1,200 meters deep (nearly four fifths of a mile).

In neighboring Yemen, a nation of 21 million, the water table under most of the country is falling by roughly 2 meters a year as water use outstrips the sustainable yield of aquifers. In western Yemen’s Sana’a Basin, the estimated annual water extraction of 224 million tons exceeds the annual recharge of 42 million tons by a factor of five, dropping the water table 6 meters per year. World Bank projections indicate the Sana’a Basin—site of the national capital, Sana’a, and home to 2 million people—will be pumped dry by 2010.

In the search for water, the Yemeni government has drilled test wells in the basin that are 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) deep—depths normally associated with the oil industry—but they have failed to find water. Yemen must soon decide whether to bring water to Sana’a, possibly by pipeline from coastal desalting plants, if it can afford it, or to relocate the capital. Either alternative will be costly and potentially traumatic.

Israel, even though it is a pioneer in raising irrigation water productivity, is depleting both of its principal aquifers—the coastal aquifer and the mountain aquifer that it shares with Palestinians. Israel’s population, whose growth is fueled by both natural increase and immigration, is outgrowing its water supply. Conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians over the allocation of water in the latter area are ongoing. Because of severe water shortages, Israel has banned the irrigation of wheat."

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