Peak Water

Irrigation for Agriculture by xedos4 at
Irrigation for Agriculture by xedos4 at

In an earlier post, I talked about how water shortages may be fueling conflict in the Middle East. In a recent article in the Guardian Lester Brown made the argument that the real threat to our future is “peak water.” Brown suggests that this topic should gain as much attention as “peak oil” because globally people have extracted water from aquifers more rapidly than it has been possible for them to replenish, which is causing a major environmental crisis. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has drawn down its water reserves rapidly: “After being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the Saudis announced in early 2008 that, with their aquifers largely depleted, they would reduce wheat planting by one-eighth each year until 2016, when production would end. By then Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tonnes of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.” Brown makes that point that water depletion is also a major problem in China, India and the United States. Still, it is in the Middle East that the change is happening most quickly. In Yemen, for example, some aquifers are falling six feet a year and “grain production has fallen by nearly half over the last 40 years.” While the Saudis are reducing grain production as part of a plan, Yemen is doing so simply because the water is no longer available.

Recently the website the Oil Drum announced that it would cease publishing new articles and become an archive. This website was influential in 2009, when concern about Peak OIl rose in the context of the global financial crisis, because people worried that this economic disaster might be driven by an underlying change in energy production. With the rapid rise of fracking, these fears have faded. The United States is on track to surpass Saudi Arabia as an oil producer. Canada is producing so much oil that it has difficulty getting it to market. With Google Trends it is easy to see how interest in “Peak OIl” has declined as interest in fracking has risen. As several readers had commented, some of the better known posters have left the Oil Drum before it closed. The editors said that they were having difficulty finding quality content. I think that its passing may represent the decline of the Peak Oil movement as a whole. Over the last decade Peak OIl had become a cottage industry as one author after another wrote books (Paul Roberts, The End of Oil or Mathew Simmons, Twilight in the Desert) predicting the inevitable decline of civilization given the depletion of oil. More recent media coverage usually focuses on the dramatic increases in production. David Shukman’s (Science Writer, BBC) recent article “The Receding Threat of Peak Oil” has a great chart of the predicted increase in U.S. oil production to explain why this is the case (check out out the video of oil fields in California too).

In this context, I think that Lester Brown’s point is a good one. In the future, people globally are perhaps more likely to be worried about a shortage of water than oil. And this is certainly a problem in the United States, particularly in the Midwest. I plan to give more coverage to water in my “Introduction to International Studies” class in the future, and I predict that other faculty soon will too.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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