Hardly a week goes by without new reasons to be concerned about the impact of changing precipitation patterns and mounting water stress on food production.
This past week, officials in Texas cut off irrigation water to rice farmers downstream of reservoirs depleted by the worst one-year drought in Texas history. Even with recent rains, lakes Buchanan and Travis remain at 42 percent of capacity. Farmers, who pay the least for water, will be denied their liquid lifeline in order to prevent curtailments to urban and industrial water users.
It was the first time in its seventy-eight year history that the Austin-based Lower Colorado River Authority had cut off water to farmers.
On February 29, United Nations officials announced that the crucial March through May rainy season in the Horn of Africa would likely fall short again this year. The warning comes on the heels of last year’s drought, the worst in sixty years, and the devastating famine it triggered.
Scientists analyzed data on rainfall, temperature, ocean currents and the strength of the La Niña before making their forecast at a climate outlook conference in Kigali, Rwanda.
“This is not good news for farmers in areas which have been affected by agricultural drought in recent years,” said Youcef Ait-Chellouche, an official with the U.N.’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. “We must plan for the probability that rainfall will be erratic and there will be long dry spells which will impact on crop production and food security.”
The forecast comes just weeks after the United Nations downgraded Somalia’s food crisis from a famine to a “humanitarian emergency.” Across the Horn of Africa, some 9.5 million people still require emergency assistance, according to U.N. officials.
And then from India comes perhaps the most worrisome news of the week. Researchers there have found that India’s monsoonal rainfall, upon which much of the nation’s agriculture depends, is becoming less frequent and more intense.
Scientists with the agriculture division of the India Meteorological Department in Pune found that global climate change can cause departures from the historic monsoonal norm, which, on balance would lead to lower yields of rice, maize, cotton, soybeans, and other kharif (monsoonal) crops. During the rabi (dry) season, higher temperatures could cut yields of wheat, potatoes, and vegetables.
The agriculture commissioner for Maharashtra, an important crop-producing state, told the Times of India that farmers in his state already are seeing yield impacts that he attributes to climatic change.
Still another report from the last week casts a pall over California’s upcoming harvest. State officials found that the water content of California’s mountain snowpack is only 30 percent of normal historic levels for this point in the season. Officials estimate they will deliver only 50 percent of the water requested from the State Water Project, a system of reservoirs and canals that distributes water to 25 million Californians and nearly one million acres of irrigated farmland.
“Absolutely, we should be concerned,” Frank Gehrke, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, commented to the San Francisco Chronicle.
These reports are snapshots of weather and climate-related warnings and in no way present a picture of the world’s food situation.
But they are the kinds of warnings that now seem to routinely overlay already troubling global water trends – from widespread groundwater depletion to dried up rivers and lakes.
What’s emerging is an interconnected web of risks, with the threads of water stress, food insecurity and rising population and consumption now magnified by extreme weather and climatic change.
Which is why, in my view, the portrayal of water security in the U.S. intelligence community’s 2012 worldwide threat assessment is a little too sanguine.
To be sure, the assessment clearly warns that “over the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to US interests.” It also underscores groundwater depletion as a risk to both national and global food markets.
But it fails to spotlight the potential for social and political instability stemming from the interplay of extreme weather, water shortage and food prices – even though we got a sneak preview of this destabilization in 2007-08 and again in 2011.
The food riots that erupted in Haiti, Senegal, Mauritania and a half dozen other countries as grain prices climbed in 2007-08 are a harbinger of what is to come. Extreme weather in 2010 – including the off-the-charts heat wave in Russia that slashed the country’s wheat harvest by 40 percent, the epic flood in Pakistan, widespread drought in China, and the massive flooding following the decade of drought in Australia – caused an even higher spike in food prices in early 2011. Some analysts have linked the skyrocketing food prices with the violent protests that unleashed the Arab Spring.
Climatic change and its impacts on the global water cycle guarantee that we’ll increasingly find ourselves outside the bounds of normal. The implications for food security, social cohesion and political stability are of the utmost concern both to our national security and our humanitarian impulse.
It’s time to connect the dots– and to prepare, as best we can, for the new scenarios unfolding before our eyes.
Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative. She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”