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World's water needs raise warnings

Hydroelectric power, food production at stake, reports say

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An Indian man collects water from a reservoir on the eve of World Water Day in Gauhati, India, on Friday. World Water Day is observed annually on March 22 as a means to recognize the global need to save, conserve and manage water resources for future generations.

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An Indian man collects water from a reservoir on the eve of World Water Day in Gauhati, India, on Friday. World Water Day is observed annually on March 22 as a means to recognize the global need to save, conserve and manage water resources for future generations.

This might sound trite to Winnipeggers who have been living without access to running water for most of the winter, but welcome to the real world.

Their situation, albeit temporary,puts them in solidarity with the 80 per cent or so of the world's population that lacks access to water in their homes. The city's water woes, first with discoloured water and then frozen pipes and fractured water mains, perhaps makes today's World Water Day particularly poignant.

It's a major inconvenience to be carrying water and going someplace else to shower, but for most Manitobans, access to clean water is not only something we take for granted, but habitually undervalue.

According to the United Nations, 768 million people, about one-tenth of the world's population, lack access to improved water sources, 2.5 billion have no improved sanitation and 1.3 billion have no electricity.

The UN's theme for this year's event is the link between water and energy, another reality that should resonate, given Manitoba's long-standing dependence on hydroelectricity to power its economy.

Globally, hydroelectricity accounts for only about 15 per cent of global electricity production, a newly released UN report says.

It wants to raise awareness that the "water-energy nexus" is an unavoidable challenge for policy-makers as a rising global population puts more pressure on resources. "The world cannot continue to ignore or escape the strong link between water and energy. They are not independent variables in the world's economic-ecosystem equation," the report says.

The UN predicts that by 2030, the world will need 35 per cent more food, 40 per cent more water and 50 per cent more energy while its ability to supply all of them is becoming increasingly constrained.

The UNESCO Water Forum says about 70 per cent of global water use is for irrigation, and irrigated crops currently make up about 40 per cent of the world's food. It also says that as irrigated crop production expands -- it more than doubled between 1960 and 2000 --it is increasingly drawing down groundwater reserves at unsustainable rates.

"The unsustainable use of groundwater for irrigation is an important issue not only for the countries with intensive groundwater use, but also for the world at large, since international trade directly links food production in one country to consumption in another," it says.

How these trends play out has curious implications for Canadian farmers who operate in a semi-arid climate and produce crops and livestock for export.

Another newly released study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) found it's not so much the amount of water that's important, it's the source of the water and whether its use is contributing to local water scarcity. For example, given its depleted water capacity, it's becoming highly questionable whether the fresh fruits and vegetables from California are something we should take for granted.

The Potsdam Institute says it takes five times more water to produce one kilogram of cereals in Morocco than in parts of Europe, so it makes sense for one region to produce the food for export. These scientists concluded international trade of food crops today globally accounts for water savings worth US$2.4 billion.

"In contrast to popular perception, global food trade and the related virtual water flows indeed offer the possibility of relieving water stress and making global water use more efficient," co-author Hermann Lotze-Campen, co-chairman of PIK's research domain, Climate Impacts and Vulnerabilities, says.

"When it comes to the implementation of policy instruments which affect global trade -- such as trade liberalization, import taxes or agricultural subsidies -- decision-makers have to take into account the indirect effects on water as well. To connect international food trade to regional water scarcity can contribute to advance this debate."

In southern Manitoba, the problem has often been too much water recently, but overall, the Canadian Prairies are short of water and droughts can return. That means for farmers and crop scientists, the challenge isn't just achieving higher yields, but achieving them with as little moisture as possible.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2014 B12

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