Food, water and oil - the hidden link

Since World War II, agricultural research and development has dramatically increased crop productivity, which along with an increase in the areas under irrigation and cultivation, has allowed us to feed an ever increasing global population. Unfortunately, regional conflicts and droughts still cause famine, and poverty is largely responsible for 850 million people still suffering malnourishment. If we could overcome economic inequity, corruption and food distribution issues, we would be able to nourish everybody adequately.

However, the situation we see today is changing rapidly. World population is expected to reach about eight billion by 2025, meaning about another two billion mouths to feed. In the same period, we expect climate change to begin to bite in its impact on water supplies in many areas and oil production to potentially peak and start to decline, while growing cities need ever increasing water supplies.

Furthermore westernisation of dietary habits in many developing countries requires more and more water to produce hamburgers compared with rice or wheat. Is there enough land, water and human capacity to produce food for a growing population over the next 50 years or will we run out of water? 

On an optimistic note, we might believe that research and development and innovative engineering may help us overcome these issues just as they have in the past. However, many countries in the developed and developing world have significantly reduced their funding of these areas with concomitant focus being given to the major issues associated with urbanisation.

As a scientist, I am concerned about how climate change, petrochemical availability, urbanisation and dietary change will affect us all, not just developing countries. Climate change superimposed on the worst drought in 100 years has already appeared to have had a big impact in southern Australia, with storages in the Murray Darling Basin close to empty and the possibility of no irrigation in the coming season.

In India and Pakistan, accelerated melting of Himalayan glaciers, which store and release the water that millions depend upon every year, threatens a future with significant dwindling of water supplies. A similar picture is seen in parts of the Andes.

This year, it has been estimated that more people live in cities and large towns than in rural communities for the first time in history. This inexorable trend towards urbanisation creates further strain on our water supplies, in that cities compete with agriculture and the environment for water, and generally capture little stormwater run-off, or recycle very little of their waste water.

Several Australian cities provide a clear example of this and are turning to costly desalination plants, that will draw heavily on electric power.

The agricultural and water science community need to ensure that policy-makers and politicians are made aware of the challenges. Politicians need to ensure that we do not become complacent about current food sources and look to the future and the impact on those sources. The world has enough problems already without the impact of more malnourishment and starvation on the poor and disadvantaged.

Colin Chartres is currently Chief Science Adviser with Australia’s National Water Commission. He has been appointed, commencing in October, as Director General of the International Water Management Institute, based in Sri Lanka.


This opinion was previously published in The Canberra Times on July 27, 2007 and on OnlineOpinion.com.au - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate.  Click here to read & post comments on this article.