Researchers in Canada and the Netherlands have recently published details of how our planet's use of freshwater from aquifers is leaving them in a perilous state.
This graphic accompanied their article in the journal Nature and explains how freshwater aquifers are shrinking as farmers and others exploit them to supply our cities and towns, irrigate crops and feed livestock.
The aquifers shown in the graphic to be coloured red, orange or yellow are of the most serious concern and the grey areas underneath show the water being removed from each aquifer compared to the natural replenishment rate. For instance, the water footprint of the Upper Ganges aquifer, a region home to hundreds of millions of people, is a huge concern being 50 times larger than the size of the aquifer itself.
This is not the first time people have pointed to the perilous state of our water resources but since the majority of environment news in the media recently has focussed on macro-issues like climate change it is an important reminder we are about to face some major environment issues regardless of whether we act on climate change.
American researcher Lester Brown has been providing a step by step guide for policy makers to tackle challenges involving food, energy, transport and urban design for years courtesy of his regularly updated book 'Plan B'. Every couple of years Brown updates 'Plan B' to include the latest research about the planet's situation and consequent medicine for how our civilisation can cope with the effects of climate change and tackle the environmental trends that threaten our way of life and, in some cases, may undermine the foundations of our civilisation.
Rather than focus on how bad things may be, Brown aims to reassure the reader there is still time to reverse some of the trends that most threaten our now fragile planet. Since many of the trends do not get reversed, or sometimes even addressed, in the time between editions, every revision of 'Plan B' (currently it is version 4.0) suggests a need for stronger medicine than before.
One of the most interesting parts of Brown's research is in the areas of energy and food security. While most are familiar with the consequences of conflicts over energy issues, especially oil, fewer are familiar with the growing tensions between countries because of concerns about the allocation of food and water resources. International tensions in South-east Asia are particularly high at the moment where Laos is preparing a major new Mekong River dam to the detriment of downstream users in Cambodia.
Brown's explanation of recent and historical trends revolves around the question of 'How many people can the earth support?'. A question often glossed over by decision makers but likely to be crucially important in the near future as our population creeps towards the upper limits of our planet's currently available resources and technological capabilities. Sensibly, before proposing any population figure, Brown adds another question - 'at what level of food consumption?'.
Globally, people have vastly different environmental footprints usually determined by their consumption of energy and food. Unlike food production, energy issues are likely easier to tackle as parts of the world have the capacity to move away from reliance on fossil fuels by embracing renewable energy. In the future energy has the potential to be less of a source of global conflict as it is replaced by concerns over food and water security issues.
Brown explains how if the average US diet was the global norm our planet could support as few as 2 billion people, while the average Indian diet writ large would allow the planet to support 10 billion people. The key difference between the two is of course the high volume of meat consumed by the 'US diet' compared to others and the consequent high volume of water required to produce this meat compared to non-meat alternatives. It is generally agreed the water requirement for beef production for instance, is six times that of soy beans.
Like a great deal of Brown's writing this information is both helpful, hopeful and alarming. It suggests our planet does have the capacity to feed all people but not at the rate of meat and so water consumption per person we do presently. The rising living standards of much of the developing world are great news and should be encouraged but no country should be encouraged to develop into another USA or Australia where diet is concerned. And both the USA, Australia and other countries relying on high meat diets should immediately change this.
The good news is our planet as a whole can cope with decreasing water supplies so long as we are quick to step down the food chain. This shift may well see countries currently importing food because their domestic production is so heavily skewed towards meat, becoming food exporters. This would help address the next big resource challenge – making sure the water and food resources are in the right parts of the world to actually feed people.
The message here is simple – water security is becoming a major global concern and the solution involves our planet's population consuming much less meat. Or better still, none.
The Nature article is here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v488/n7410/full/nature11295.html
This article was originally published on the Green Earth Group website.
Ronan Lee is a political consultant and former Greens MP and adviser. He has traveled extensively in Burma, observing the 2010 elections and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi in the days following her release from house arrest. A long-time vegetarian he advocated in Parliament for people to eat less meat because of the environmental benefits associated with this. He blogs and sometimes tweets
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