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New translation, the Magna Carta

already pressures on food supplies - aquifers falling fast, populations rising

“Scores of countries are overpumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs. The drilling of millions of irrigation wells has pushed water withdrawals beyond recharge rates, in effect leading to groundwater mining. The failure of governments to limit pumping to the sustainable yield of aquifers means that water tables are now falling in countries that contain more than half the world’s people, including the big three grain producers - China, India, and the United States.

“Most of the world’s aquifers are replenishable, so that when they are depleted, the maximum rate of pumping will be automatically reduced to the rate of recharge. Fossil aquifers, however, are not replenishable. For these - including the vast U.S. Ogallala aquifer, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain, or the Saudi aquifer, for example - depletion brings pumping to an end. Farmers who lose their irrigation water have the option of returning to lower-yield dryland farming if rainfall permits. But in more arid regions, such as in the southwestern United States or the Middle East, the loss of irrigation water means the end of agriculture.

“Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvests in some countries, including China, which rivals the United States as the world’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in August 2001 revealed that the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces over half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.

“The survey reported that under Hebei Province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer was dropping nearly 3 meters (10 feet) per year. Around some cities in the province, it was falling twice as fast. As the deep aquifer is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve - its only safety cushion.”

related material
land conservation and food production

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keeping up: trouble with water

This news item has been moved and incoporated into the Pressure on water resources briefing document.

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water labelling

“Labelling foods ranging from spaghetti to meat to show how much water is used in their production could help combat mounting pressure on the world's water supplies, a leading expert said on Tuesday.

“Typically, a calorie of food demands a litre of water (0.2 Imperial gallons) to produce, according to UN estimates. But a kilo (2.2 lbs) of industrially produced meat needs 10,000 litres while a kilo of grain requires just 500-4,000 litres.”

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pulling the plug out - lake victoria on the road to ruin

“Covering nearly 70,000 square kilometres, Lake Victoria takes a big bite out of surrounding Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. An estimated 30 million people depend on it for their livelihoods. Since 2003, however, the lake has lost 75 cubic kilometres of water, about 3 per cent of its volume, leaving international ferries stranded far from their jetties, fishing boats mired in mud, and towns running low on water.”

“ In 1954 british engineers blasted out the weir and replaced it with the Owens Falls (Nalubaale) dam which transformed the lake into a giant hydroelectric reservoir. At the time, engineers agreed that the amount of water flowing through the turbines should mimic the previous natural flow.

“The agreed flow supposedly remains in force under a treaty with Egypt, the ultimate user of most of the Nile's water. In 2002, Uganda finished building a second hydropower complex close to the first one. Soon after its completion people began to notice the water level falling, and today the lake is at an 80-year low.” [Quoted from]

marker at

“Daniel Kull, a hydrologist who has worked with the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction in Nairobi, says that in the past two years, Uganda has been taking 55% more water from Lake Victoria than it is supposed to under a colonial-era agreement.” [Quoted from]

‘Uganda’ blames drought. In the meantime, conflict over the waters of the Nile rises in probability.

sketch map of the Nile river catchment area, with approximate national borders
sketch map of the Nile river catchment area,
with approximate national borders

related material
the tragedy of the commons

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problems with clean water supply

“To take this last claim first, the world is not running out of water, partly because the natural cycle perpetually renews it but also because the growth in water consumption no longer seems to be correlated with growth in GDP and population (see chart 1 for what is happening in the United States, the world's most profligate user of water). According to Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, in the 1930s it took 200 tonnes of water to make a tonne of steel in America; now it takes only 20 tonnes of water, and the best Korean methods use only 3-4 tonnes. Toilets, which account for the biggest domestic use of water, show a similar gain: from six gallons of water per flush in 1980 to only 1.6 gallons in the latest models.

“Domestic consumers are hardly ever to blame for water shortages. As much as 50% of the water in piped systems is lost through leakage. More important, wherever in the world water is scarcest, which is mostly in developing countries, irrigation for agriculture gobbles up at least 75% and sometimes as much as 90% of the available water. In richer countries, industry and energy use a surprisingly large amount. Domestic users everywhere account for a relatively small share (see chart 3). Any shortages should thus be blamed on farmers and manufacturers, not on swimming-pool owners.”

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European Commission ratings for bathing water quality

Both coastal (salt) and inland (fresh) bathing waters are rated. Here are the figures for 2002 (the latest year available) in approximate order from best to worst.

2002 Saltwater Freshwater
Greece 99.9% 100.0%
Netherlands 100.0% 97.8%
United Kingdom 97.8% 100.0%
Ireland 97.5% 100.0%
Portugal 98.7% 97.6%
Sweden 96.3% 99.7%
Finland 98.3% 97.0%
Denmark 93.3% 97.3%
Germany 97.3% 92.8%
Belgium 94.9% 94.3%
Spain 98.3% 85.1%
France 87.3% 89.6%
Italy 96.1% 76.1%

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treating the waters of the world as a dustbin

oceans in a mess
link to a summary of a new, interesting report about the oceans off the USA.

“America’s oceans are in crisis and the stakes could not be higher. More than half the U.S. population lives in coastal counties. The resident population in this area is expected to increase by 25 million people by 2015. More than 180 million people visit the shore for recreation every year.”

And very similar problems exist around the world.

Here are the links for the full report.

And here is a minor item about ‘fresh’ water:
mismanagement of ground water

“Within 25 years, half the world's population could have trouble finding enough fresh water for drinking and irrigation.

“Currently, more than 80 countries, representing 40 percent of the world's people, are subject to serious water shortages. Conditions may get worse in the next 50 years as populations grow and as global warming disrupts rainfall patterns.”

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