In Perspective: Water scarcity’s impacts

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Colleen Scherer We underestimate the impact of water in our lives. Americans take abundant, clean, cheap water for granted. But slowly, very slowly, our eyes are opening to the changes happening around us.

Water, or the lack of it, is a significant topic of discussion among many in the United States since a severe drought swept through the nation starting last summer. The agriculture industry is waiting on pins and needles to see how this year’s planting season will turn out.

In the ag media, we are bombarded with news stories about drought, nearly on a daily basis. But in March, several key messages about water scarcity, drought and water management kept popping up.

In mid-March, a new video was released from Allan Savory, a soft-spoken Zimbabwean biologist, farmer and environmentalist who has spent a lifetime studying and practicing techniques that combat desertification around the globe. He spoke at the 2013 TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Conference about how nearly two-thirds of the world is threatened by desertification. Savory’s claim is that removing grazing animals from an ecosystem promotes desertification. To heal the land and slow climate change, he says, grazing animals must be returned to areas in peril of desertification.

In 22 minutes, Savory lays out the problem facing the world and how his research now shows how to use livestock to reverse desertification. In a world facing billions more people in the next 40 years that will need to be fed, which will put a strain on water supplies, finding ways to return land back to healthy grasslands is key to helping reverse negative climate trends. To watch the video, go to

The next water message received was just prior to World Water Day, which was March 22. The Worldwatch Institute released a new report examining global water use and ways to address water scarcity. According to the report, 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, while another 1.6 billion face economic water shortages. As world population increases, water resources will be strained.

Worldwatch in its report cited the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and UN Water as saying global water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. And agricultural water use accounts for 44 percent of total water withdrawal among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In Brazil, Russia, India and China, agriculture accounts for 74 percent of water withdrawals, but this ranges from 20 percent in Russia to 87 percent in India.

Another message received this month was in listening to a radio program that introduced Charles Fishman, author of “The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.” In the interview, Fishman stressed how access to water will become more of a contentious and political issue in the United States. He pointed to a nearly decade-long drought in Australia that forced it to reinvent the country’s entire water system. After one year of a severe drought, the United States is not quite ready to make the hard choices, he said. But he said not to rule out big changes ahead. He claims the U.S. has already left behind a century-long golden age when water was thoughtlessly abundant, free and safe, and we have entered a new era of high-stakes water. In 2008, Atlanta came within 90 days of running entirely out of clean water, and California is in a desperate battle to hold off a water catastrophe, Fishman says in his book.

As agriculture goes into another crop production year not knowing if the drought from 2012 will continue this year, all eyes remain on the skies. Looking further into the future, however, agriculture may face a tougher political battle over water with urban areas. The industry will need to remain vigilant and use the best technology available to conserve the water to which it has access.

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