Water is our most important natural resource, it has no replacements or substitutes and all human activity in some way relies on it to function – from the basic biochemistry of the body to large-scale thermal electricity production.
Once abundant in many areas, as the planet’s population has grown and poorly managed industrial processes have polluted water sources all over the world, scarcity has grown to become an issue that is very real, and one faced by more and more of the world’s populous. Whilst the issue of Carbon and atmospheric pollution has been one high on the agenda of top politicians, water scarcity is one that is only now starting to make inroads into mainstream rhetoric. It is a truly international problem with many countries relying on the same water catchments to function and, as the crisis in Sao Paulo showed, if actions and developments are not taken to create more sustainable systems, the potential for humanitarian crises is great.
With the inevitability of increased urbanization around the world and the subsequent rise in individual water footprint, it is the action that must be taken sooner rather than later to develop systems capable of accounting for expectant populations. China and its cities are no exception to this and, for many, water crises are on the horizon, the north of the country has major scarcity issues whilst the industrial processes alluded to have been more damaging within it than anywhere else. This is coupled with the fact that China has the largest population in the world and it is growing; growing in size, affluence, wants and consumption. So the question becomes, as China increases its demand for food and with the precious little agricultural land it has left, what does it do?
The answer: Import water. Import water through the importation of food.
Outlined below are some of the most common commodities imported to China from the USA, they enter China to satisfy the ever-growing demand for commodities, commodities that have not always been a staple part of the Chinese diet but as they have been made available by global trade, domestic consumption has skyrocketed.
For the last 5 years, this has been a huge opportunity for US farmers. They are increasing their yields and growing the local economies, generating money and feeding it back into the economy to provide local benefits. All positive externalities for the economy, but the less known consequence of this is the indirect exports of water, from areas of the US where it is quickly running out.
Most acutely in California, a state where water is so scarce that the amount of water drawn from rivers and aquifers means the Colorado River rarely reaches the sea, yet it also produces 99% of US almonds and walnuts production is from California. So whilst the local economy is benefiting from the trade to China, the pressure on local water sources is now a severe challenge.
To provide context to the above, the total export of water from the US for the 4 agricultural commodities equates to:
23.3 Million Olympic Swimming Pools
1.7 Trillion Showers (5 minutes Average / 35l)
734 Billion Baths (80l)
Which, with the US population at 321442019 equates to:
5218 showers for every individual or 2272 baths
which is a shower every day per person for 13.7 years or a bath for 6.2 years
And whilst a staggering amount of this water footprint comes from the enormous output of Soy Beans to China, something expected to continue if you just take water required for almonds and walnuts then:
every person in California can have 175 showers with the water
It is not just that this is a lot of water, but it is water that some would say the state of California cannot afford to be exporting at all. Crucially, this is not an issue that is isolated to the US and China and not one that we see growing any easier to manage over the next 15 years without major changes to how food is produced, processed, and priced.
Countries like Saudi Arabia are already investing heavily overseas to capture farmable lands, while countries like Singapore and the U.A.E. are investing in farming technologies that increase the percentage of food grown locally while dramatically lowering their water footprints. Investments and actions that all are signals for what is likely to come as water scarcity is recognized as the growing issue that major politician needs to start to regulate and address.
N.B. Some numbers in calculations don’t match due to rounding.