Sunday, 2 September 2012

The world is running out of water

Issue No:237

Humans may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages of water, according to a report by the Stockholm International Water Institute.

''There will not be enough water available on current croplands to produce food for the expected nine billion population in 2050 if we follow current trends and changes towards diets common in Western nations,'' the report says.

Prepared by Malin Falkenmark and colleagues at the institute, the report says there will be just enough water if the proportion of animal-based foods is limited to 5% of total calories. It says considerable regional water deficits could be met by a reliable system of food trade between countries with surpluses and deficits.

The report says adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in a climate-erratic world. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet, yet a third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.

''Nine hundred million people already go hungry and 2 billion people are malnourished in spite of the fact that per capita food production continues to increase. With 70% of all available water being in agriculture, growing more food to feed an additional 2 billion people by 2050 will place greater pressure on available water and land.''

The report was released to coincide with the start of the annual world water conference in Stockholm, where 2,500 politicians, UN bodies, non-governmental organisations and researchers from 120 countries were meeting to tackle water supply problems.

Competition for water between food production and other uses will intensify pressure on essential resources, the institute report states. ''The UN predicts that we must increase food production by 70% by mid-century. This will place additional pressure on our already stressed water resources.''

The institute also notes that research into water is growing faster than the average 4% annual growth rate for all research disciplines. In a report, The Water and Food Nexus: Trends and development of the research landscape, institute staff analysed the major trends in water- and food-related article output at international, national and institutional levels.

Global publisher Elsevier and the institute collaborated in preparing the report, which is based on the analysis of Scopus citation data by Elsevier’s SciVal Analytics team. It says the growing discrepancy between supply and demand for water is becoming more challenging each year but developments in water research have the potential to help solve the issue.

The report examines the dynamics of global water research between 2007 and 2011, focusing on two strands of research: water resources research, referring to natural and social science studies on water use, and food and water research focusing on the study of water consumption and recycling to produce food.

Water research has expanded rapidly, with both strands growing above the 4% average for all other disciplines. Water resources research is growing at a rate of 9.2% per year while research into food and water is growing by 4.7% each year.

Research is also becoming more collaborative and interdisciplinary, with a dramatic rise in publications from the fields of computer science and mathematics in water resource research; research from fields within the social sciences have become the fastest growing fields in the food and water research strand, the report states.

Research output is the highest in the United States in both water resources and food and water research, but growth between 2007 and 2011 was low.

On the other hand, China is experiencing ongoing growth in water research output and, if its trajectory continues, it could be the leading producer of water research within the next few years. Other countries experiencing high growth rates in both water resources and food and water research include Malaysia and Iran.

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