Food, water insecurity may mean shortages for us all

Every person requires food and water to remain alive. But our food and water supplies are becoming insecure. Already now, that’s true in poor countries for billions of people who don’t read international newspapers like this one, and who are undernourished. For this newspaper’s readers, the current problem is “merely” that food and water are becoming more expensive. But we newspaper readers, too, may eventually face serious shortages. Why?

Before discussing water insecurity, let’s start with food insecurity, for which there are at least three main causes. One cause is that the world’s population is growing. It’s projected to continue growing for at least three more decades. More people will require more food. Already today, though, many people don’t get enough food.

A second cause of food insecurity is climate change, especially increasing droughts. They are reducing crop production in some of the world’s best farmlands — including California’s Central Valley, the United States’ leading breadbasket, just 100 kilometers from my home in Los Angeles.

The remaining cause of food insecurity is losses of soil fertility, and of soil itself. My Chinese readers are concerned about many visible problems — but you should also be concerned about your mostly invisible earthworms, which are in steep decline. That’s a big problem for you in China, because earthworms enhance soil fertility and create new soil. We Americans, too, have our own soil problems, especially because farmlands of our Great Plains are losing soil that gets eroded and washed down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico.

Until recently, some countries’ leaders still preached the idea of “self-sufficiency”: i.e., trying to produce most necessities within their own country’s boundaries. But that ideal has been abandoned in today’s globalized world, where countries enjoy, but have become dependent on, imports from other countries. Tragic consequences of that dependency today include food shortages in African countries dependent on grain imports from the Ukraine, now nearly cut off due to Russian blockade of Ukrainian shipping. Already over a century ago, during World War I, the British blockade of food imports into Germany caused widespread starvation and deaths of German civilians.

Large-scale international transport of food began with shipping of dry foods, such as grain. The development of refrigerated cargo ships around 1900 greatly increased the variety of foods that could be shipped around the globe. Those ships enabled Australia to become a major supplier of beef and mutton to Britain, halfway around the world. An Australian friend of mine, who worked in an Australian meat-packing plant, and who shared Australians’ widespread love/hate attitude towards Britain, expressed his hatred by dropping bitter-tasting beef gall bladders into freezer boxes of beef livers marked for export to Britain.

Today, Brazil supplies much of Australia’s orange juice and of China’s soy across the Pacific Ocean, while Japan’s most prized fish for sushi and sashimi is bluefin tuna imported from the Mediterranean. In the Los Angeles markets where my wife and I do our food shopping, we buy imported salmon from Norway, sea bass from Chile, bananas from tropical Central and South America, and wine from Europe, Argentina, Chile, and Australia. In whatever country you readers of this newspaper find yourselves, look at the labels on the foods that you buy, and see for yourselves how far your country has retreated from former ideals of self-sufficiency.

Why mention these wonderful enrichments of our dinner table in an article on food insecurity? It’s because our globalized food supply would be an unmixed blessing only if we could count on a future world without wars, without growing populations, and without drought, soil erosion, earthworm declines, and other losses of soil fertility. Alas, what we can count on instead is a future blighted by all of those threats, rather than a future without them.

Our globalized food supply is a mixed blessing: wonderful so long as it functions, but tragic when we have grown dependent on it and it stops functioning. Already, billions of the world’s people are suffering from acute food insecurity. When, and how much, and in what ways will the rest of us also suffer from the world’s increasing food insecurity?

Our shrinking freshwater supply

Now let’s turn to water insecurity. Just as is true for food insecurity, one cause of water insecurity is our increasing population. It would be bad enough if that just meant more people competing for the same global amount of fresh water. Alas, what we face is worse: more people competing for a decreasing amount of fresh water, due to climate change. Rising global temperatures are associated with droughts, lower average rainfall, and lower river flows, plus increased melting of ice in glaciers, on high mountains, and in the polar ice caps and sea ice.

In effect, fresh water worldwide is being converted into ocean salt water. That’s why sea level is rising worldwide, threatening low-lying coastal lands such as parts of Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and small Pacific island nations. As a result, several billion people around the world already have only limited access to fresh water, especially to clean fresh water.

But, but, but: the world is dotted with rivers and lakes. Couldn’t we resolve our water insecurity problems just by taking more water out of those rivers and lakes?

No: most of the world’s freshwater bodies in areas accessible to people are already being utilized for purposes such as drinking and industrial water, irrigation, fisheries, and water transport. Many of those accessible freshwater bodies are already not just utilized but overutilized — with the result that major rivers of China and southeast Australia have no water left to reach the ocean, and that what used to be the world’s fourth-largest lake (the Aral Sea) lost 90% of its area. The world’s few remaining underutilized rivers and lakes are mostly in areas remote from large human populations, such as Siberia, Iceland, and northwest Australia.

Couldn’t we resolve our water insecurity problems just by desalinizing seawater, which fills the oceans? No, that’s not practical, except locally on a small scale — because desalinizing seawater requires energy. But the world is already struggling to cope with limited energy sources. We are trying to reduce, not to increase, our use of our biggest energy source, fossil fuels, because they are the cause of global warming.

Couldn’t we resolve our water insecurity problems just by towing icebergs from Antarctica to water-poor areas like Saudi Arabia? No: that idea has already been tried and discarded. You won’t be astonished to learn why. It takes lots of energy to tow an iceberg (surprise!); and ice melts as you tow it from cold Antarctica towards the hot equator (more surprise!).

The biggest “insecurity” caused by the collision between our growing human population and our shrinking freshwater supply may prove to be: the risk of war! In some densely populated areas of the world, hundreds of millions, or even billions, of people in different populous countries compete to exploit different segments of the same water system.

One such conflict area is the Nile River, where Egypt downstream feels threatened by Ethiopian dam-building upstream. An even larger potential conflict area is the shrinking Himalayan ice cap, which is the ultimate source of water for the major rivers of populous East Asian countries. Those countries include Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and China. Their rivers include the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Mekong, and Yangtze and Yellow, respectively. Dams built by one country upstream reduce the water and silt reaching countries downstream.

Will the whole world succeed in resolving its growing problems of food and water insecurity? Will countries dependent on the Nile River and on the Himalayan ice cap for their fresh water succeed in peacefully resolving their competition for water? Human planning, or else unplanned human blunders, will answer these questions within the near future.

Jared Diamond

Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” “Collapse,” “Upheaval,” and other international best-selling books.

The Japanese translation of this article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun’s Oct. 22 issue.