Booming Middle-Class Diet May Stress Asia's Water Needs

James Owen in Stockholm, Sweden
for National Geographic News
August 28, 2009

The beefed-up diets of Asia's expanding middle class could lead to chronic food shortages for the water-stressed region, scientists said at a global water conference in Sweden last week.

Asia's growing economy and appetite for meat will require a radical overhaul of farmland irrigation to feed a population expected to swell to 1.4 billion by 2050, experts warned at Stockholm's World Water Week.

The threat was highlighted in a study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which estimate that Asian demand for food and livestock fodder will double in 40 years.

At current crop yields, East Asia would need 47 percent more irrigated farmland and to find 70 percent more water, the study found.

South Asia would have to expand its irrigated crop areas by 30 percent and increase water use by 57 percent. Given existing agriculture pressure on water resources and territory, that's an impossible scenario, the study authors said. In South Asia, for example, 94 percent of suitable land is already being farmed.

Instead the scientists urge modernization of existing large-scale irrigation systems, most of which were installed in the 1970s and '80s.

That would mean replacing current antiquated systems with more efficient, reliable, and flexible technologies, according to FAO irrigation expert Thierry Falcon.

Unregulated Irrigation

It's estimated that India, the world's largest consumer of underground water, has 19 million unregulated groundwater pumps.

Groundwater in northern India is receding by as much as a foot (0.3 meter) a year due to rampant water extraction, most of it for crop irrigation, according to a study published earlier this month in the journal Nature.

More than 26 cubic miles (109 cubic kilometres) of groundwater were drained from the region between 2002 and 2008, according to the satellite image-based study led by scientists with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"Governments' inability to regulate this practice is giving rise to scary scenarios of groundwater over-exploitation, which could lead to regional food crises and widespread social unrest," said Tushaar Shah of IWMI.

Continued on Next Page >>




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