International food trade drains fast the global groundwater supplies


By Minos-Athanasios Karyotakis

According to recent hydrological modelling and Earth observations, international food trade causes groundwater depletion at alarming rates due to large consumption of wheat, rice and cotton.

“Of the world’s 37 major aquifers, about 20 are past sustainability tipping points and correspond to our major food-producing regions. Groundwater induced land subsidence is like the deflation of a tire and mainly occurs where clay minerals exist, which is about a quarter of the central valley in California. We are currently experiencing the fastest rates of groundwater depletion and subsidence ever,” said hydrologist Jay Famiglietti on March 28th at the 2017 South-eastern Conference (SEC) Academic Conference hosted by Mississippi State University.

Researchers at the University College London and NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York City found out that 11 percent of the global non-renewable groundwater is depleting due to the large production and needs of international food trade. The greater part of humanity lives in societies that are relied almost exclusively on the imports from countries who exploit tremendous amounts of groundwater supplies to cultivate the land and to produce foodstuffs. Pakistan (29 percent), USA (27 percent) and India (12 percent) are the leaders in producing crops that depend on unsustainable water supplies. As a result, these countries alongside with China are already facing water shortage. Moreover, it is known that these kind of agricultural problems had contributed to the set off of serious events that affected the global community, such as the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

According to the British Academy postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Geography at Oxford University, Troy Sternberg (2013), the weather changing patterns in 2010 caused supply shortages. The wheat production was reduced in Russia (-32.7 percent), Ukraine (-19.3 percent), Canada (-13.7 percent), Australia (-8.7 percent), and China (-0.5 while the domestic consumption increased by 1.68 percent). The aforementioned crop reduction shoot up the bread prices in Egypt, the largest global wheat foreign buyer, where almost half of the income is spent on food. The wheat prices ascended from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011.

The contemporary overuse of non-renewable groundwater supplies is believed to increase the number of draughts in the near future and to provoke several socio-economic incidents that could hurt the daily life of mankind, especially the local communities that are heavily relied on groundwater for everyday use and for dealing with fires and other emergencies. For example, in Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the water pipes are running out of water even before summer and the local authorities are trying to overcome this dangerous situation by drilling the ground. However, these efforts cause more trouble as the groundwater level keeps dropping down. A study by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) revealed that the rate of the extraction is 185 percent. Chennai is on top of the ladder in the exploitation of groundwater supplies.

“We need to recognize groundwater as a critical element of national, international and regional water supplies. As a community, we need to work together to elevate critical water issues to the level of everyday understanding. Once people truly understand the sources of their water, they would really appreciate the need for better monitoring, management and stewardship,” mentioned Famiglietti during his speech at the SEC Academic Conference.

Nonetheless, the current scientific methods cannot provide clear quantified results about the amount of the remaining non-renewable water. Consequently, clear assumptions cannot be made even for the time that the world is about to run out of groundwater supplies. Researchers are trying to fill the scientific gap and create new methods and tools in order to provide accurate results. Furthermore, farmers, citizens, decision makers, food producers and food buyers need desperately to collaborate with each other and to plan new strategies that are supposed to preserve these sources and create a long-term sustainability. Finally, governments must act and take the lead in monitoring and organizing international initiatives that will highlight the consequences of the climate change and the importance of this specific topic.

This article was one of my assignments for completing the course of Science Journalism.

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