“Peak water” for the Middle East

by on July 7, 2013 at 2:47 am in Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

The situation is most serious in the Middle East. According to [Lester] Brown: “Among the countries whose water supply has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. By 2016 Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15m tonnes of wheat, rice, corn and barley to feed its population of 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

“The world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.”

Brown warns that Syria’s grain production peaked in 2002 and since then has dropped 30%; Iraq has dropped its grain production 33% since 2004; and production in Iran dropped 10% between 2007 and 2012 as its irrigation wells started to go dry.

“Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen there by half over the last 35 years. By 2015 irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain.”

The article also offers a pessimistic assessment for China, India, and parts of the United States.  Please note that Julian Simon fans should feel no need to rebel against these assessments, which are for resources with no or ill-defined property rights.  When it comes to the Middle East and India, it is easy enough to see how institutional constraints might limit possible technological solutions to this problem.

julian July 7, 2013 at 2:54 am

You said it yourself…

Once water actually becomes “scarce” it will quickly become unscarce, perhaps interrupted by a marathon of politicians looking to worsen the problem.

mulp July 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm

When will water become “unscarce” in Texas, Arizona, Colorado?

Or what exactly are politicians doing to worsen the problem, other than failing to take property rights to water from those who have them and redistributing them for profit?

prognostication July 7, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I wrote a seminar paper about declining water supplies in Jordan 6 or 7 years ago, and I imagine the problem in Jordan is present in some of the other places as well. The farmers are an important political bloc there, and one of the keys to the king maintaining power is keeping the farmers happy. The problem is that some farmers want to grow ridiculous things like cotton that would be totally nonviable without subsidy. One surefire way to spark a revolution in some of these places would be to reform agricultural policies, imo.

julian July 7, 2013 at 2:55 am

also, your link to the article is bad, though easy to access via copy paste

david July 7, 2013 at 3:19 am

India’s response has been more reservoirs and more piping, sometimes for hundreds of miles. Well, it certainly has no shortage of water nationally; the problem is storing the seasonal surplus and then distributing it.

Saudi Arabia might have more problems dealing with this though.

Ashok Rao July 7, 2013 at 3:22 am

And at least a lot of the production scarcity in the Middle East and China reflects a relatively high level of meat consumption. As India’s middle grows in both size (the “middle” is really less than the top percentile, and maybe a bit more in cities) and income meat demand will increase enormously, and religion won’t do much about it.

That poses serious problems for food and land security in India’s future; a “tax” some other mentioned countries have already paid.

Rahul July 7, 2013 at 3:38 am

I crunched some numbers. World population grew ~20% from 1996 to 2011. FAOSTAT numbers for wheat tonnage show exactly 20% growth over the same period.

Total grain production of the world in 2012 was estimated at 2241 million tons. Again approximately 25% higher than 1996 total grain at ~1800 tons.

Let’s consider rice. 1996 produced ~550 mmt. 2012 produced ~680 mmt. 23% increase.

Overall, these figures don’t reveal any dismal pictures. Overall grain production seems a wee bit above or at least in step with the population growth so far.

I’m no expert, and maybe the future will be different, yet the last decade and half reveals no cause for alarm.

Ashok Rao July 7, 2013 at 6:31 am

Isn’t literally the whole point of reports like this the idea that such a trend cannot continue? Nor, in the absence of some emergent technology or redistribution, do I know why anyone would assume that it does.

It’s like pouring a finite glass of water and remarking when it’s a tenth full that all is okay since the flow has remained constant.

Dude July 7, 2013 at 11:18 am

Lumpiness in distribution might be a cause for alarm for those with declining production, but an opportunity for those with increasing production.

Global measurements are important, but so are local trends – especially to those in specific locales.

Steve Sailer July 7, 2013 at 12:39 pm

“Overall grain production seems a wee bit above or at least in step with the population growth so far.”

Maybe people want their descendants to eat meat rather than grain?

Peter Schaeffer July 8, 2013 at 5:11 pm

Rahul,

The world does not face any global food shortages (as you point out). The issue at hand is the ability of some parts of the world to produce food. This isn’t that much of an concern either because of something called ‘trade’. As food production falls in Middle-East, the countries in question can ‘import’ the food that they are unable to produce.

Let me use one example, Qatar’s exports in 2012 were $117.7 billion (with a population of 2.042 million). Wheat seems to be selling for around $315 per metric ton. It would appear that Qatar could pay for 371 million metric tons of wheat per year. I doubt that anyone in Qatar is quite that hungry.

In all fairness, Qatar is the extreme case of a very small population and immense resources (North Dome / South Pars is the largest petroleum field in the world, by far even compared to the Saudi fields). However, let’s use Saudi Arabia as a comparison. Say Saudi Arabia has to import 15 million tons of wheat per year. That’s a cash cost of $4.725 billion per year. Saudi Arabia’s exports in 2012 were $381.5 billion. Somehow I don’t see too many hungry Saudi’s any time soon.

Given that 33% of Saudi’s are obese, hunger might actually be a good thing. Of course, 33% of Americans are obese as well.

Some of the poor countries (notably Yemen) may have problems paying for food imports. However, that’s a financial issue. Yemen has a population of 25.408 million and exports of only $7.958 billion. My guess is that income from remittances (roughly $1.5 billion per year) could cover grain imports (3.44 million metric tons per year) for the foreseeable future. That said, export income and remittance income are by no means uniformly distributed and Yemen has all manner of severe domestic problems (several civil wars and secessionist movements over the last 20 years). As a consequence malnutrition and hunger are commonplace (only 14.5% obese).

That bottom line is that even in a country as poor as Yemen, the real problem isn’t water scarcity, but a dire shortage of political stability and overall economic development.

The same holds for the world. Subject to a few very important caveats, world food production will be more than sufficient for the foreseeable future. Countries and people may go hungry, but it will be because of political / economic problems, not a shortage of water or grain.

The critical caveats are global climate change and energy policy. Sufficiently drastic changes in global climate, could cripple world food production. It hasn’t happened yet. That doesn’t mean it will never happen.

If global energy production is drastically curtailed, then global food production will be at risk. The vast expansion of food production over the last 50-100 years has come (directly and indirectly) from exploiting fossil fuels (tractors, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, etc.) to produce food. Other important innovations have occurred in that time period (hybrid corn, miracle wheat, miracle rice, GMOs). However, many of the key innovations were really just mechanisms for enabling greater use of fossil fuels in food production.

Presumably global energy production will only be slashed either in response to global climate change or to prevent global climate change. As a consequence, both caveats are really two sides of the same coin. Global climate change might be a real danger to food production at some point in the future.

A somewhat related point is that Lester Brown has been crying wolf for decades. He shouldn’t be taken seriously. The problems and issues are quite serious. Lester Brown is not.

Peter Schaeffer July 9, 2013 at 12:56 am

Rahul,

Some summary statistics. The Middle-East consumes 40 MT of grain per year. 30 MT is imported (75%). At prevailing prices that’s around $10 billion per year. Regional GDP is around $3 trillion. Oil exports are worth round $3 billion per day. You get the idea.

Rahul July 9, 2013 at 1:34 am

I think we agree in most part. (about Lester Brown too! :) )

Perhaps I’m even more skeptical than you, in the “ability of some parts of the world to produce food” sense: Look at the graphs I plotted in a comment below. For wheat, at least, Iran / Iraq / India / Pak / Saudi (all named in the original post) don’t seem to be doing too badly at all.

sam July 7, 2013 at 4:23 am

aren’t all these countries on the coast. I’m sure they’ve heard of desalination and they have the fuel to do it. It’s hardly new: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/world/asia/11water.html?_r=0

go July 7, 2013 at 4:54 am

That’s what he means in the last sentence with “easy enough”.

The problem’s neither water nor the lack of desalination and dams, but policy. Once the fields run dry, politicians can either invest in tech solutions or in grain imports – and are likely to choose the latter, easy solution, until their last credit line runs out. In the end there’s a revolt, which leads to regime change but no improvement in the food situation since the new government’s not likely to be investing either. We’ve seen that pattern often in the Middle East.

david July 7, 2013 at 5:34 am

Yeah. The princes will leave and find ready welcomes elsewhere instead. When treasury money is literally your own money, there’s no reason to let anyone else’s children share in it.

Rahul July 7, 2013 at 7:31 am

What’s wrong with judicious imports? Growing wheat does not seem the natural forte for a climate such as theirs. Might as well concentrate on sectors they can have a comparative advantage in.

Also, aren’t the Arabs aggressively investing in African food growing assets? A different version of imports.

mulp July 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Pillage and plunder and sitting around idly thinking life has no meaning and then blaming the West and plotting to overturn the West so they take the world back to when they were the center of the world circa 1400?

What will Saudi Arabia be best for in 2100?

Marty Murphy July 8, 2013 at 9:17 am

“… a hundred years ago you were living in tents out here in the desert chopping each other’s heads off and that’s where you’ll be in another hundred years …”

- Matt Damon, Syriana (2005)

Prakash July 8, 2013 at 12:38 pm

A visit to mecca is literally required for every muslim. Mecca will survive. theThe surival of rest of saudi arabia will depend on how they manage their oil.

Ashok Rao July 7, 2013 at 6:35 am

India’s coal production is so disastrously mismanaged that desalination is a no-go. And for the countries that have the fuel to do it, unless you’re talking about renewable energy it’s almost self-defeating to the extent climate change is a indirect cause of water volatility and shortage.

mulp July 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Let’s say coal production were perfectly managed so water could be desalinated perfectly effieciently, you would argue they can give the farmers all the water they need for a price that the farmers can afford?

Or you would expect farmers to creatively destruct to solve the too many farmer problem by orders of magnitude increases in suicide?

You sound like a central planner….

JWatts July 8, 2013 at 12:20 pm

unless you’re talking about renewable energy it’s almost self-defeating to the extent climate change is a indirect cause of water volatility and shortage.

First, desalination is one of the perfect uses for renewable energy (assuming solar and/or wind) because the intermittency of renewable power supplies isn’t as critical when you are pumping fresh water into a reservoir. Not having power at night or for a few wind less days, hardly matters if you are already supplying a reservoir with months of storage.

Secondly, climate change isn’t the cause of most water shortage problems. The root cause is aquifer depletion by excessive use. Generally speaking, these areas haven’t seen decreased rain fall, instead they’ve seen increased pumping. So climate change is a red herring.

Axa July 7, 2013 at 6:38 am

The problem of using averages. Did someone LOL at the water stressed depiction of Alaska? Also, as Julian commented first, once water becomes scarce is no longer scarce.

Talking about water scarcity as an homogeneous and well distributed situation is ignorant too. A good example of a real-wold case is the assessment for Kansas is available here: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/irrigate/OOW/P12/Rogers12Trends.pdf The report is interesting in the whole, but the conclusion is in page 14. If the present irrigation trend is kept some areas will run out of groundwater in 25 years while some other areas have enough water for 250+ years. Only if the historical trend continues. So, trust your local aggronomer and/or hydrogeologist, they will find a solution.

Also it is mentioned that 50% of the irrigated land is devoted to corn. Corn has a higher price than wheat or sorghum. For the specific case of Kansas, I wouldn’t call it peak water but “somebody please stop the ethanol madness”. The Guardian just reported bullshit when in the first paragraph affirms food supply is threatened. At least in the US 40% of corn is used to make ethanol.

I don’t deny there is a water scarcity problem. But assuming homogeneous hydrogeological conditions, homogeneous agricultural practices and ignoring market distortions it’s not the way to go.

Wonder what Tyler Cowen meant by “resources with no or ill-defined property rights”. I’d like him to explain further, since it is not clear if the ill-defined water rights are for the US or the Middle East.

mulp July 7, 2013 at 1:04 pm

“stopping the ethanol madness” doesn’t result in that large an increase in food production. Ethanol production produces as waste high grade feed for cattle.

Why not attack the refining of corn into sweeteners, which is all industry policy they have gotten government to implement? Or corn oil and margarine? Cuba was more than willing to supply the US with cane sugar and Wisconsin would happily produce more butter, with Indiana and Ohio farmers continuing to keep cows to eat the fodder directly out of the fields and produce dairy and butter, and reduce the need for fertilizer.

The difference between corn refining and ethanol is the corn refining takes the profits from farmers, while farmer coops bought the ethanol production capital and thus keeps more of the profit for farmers. Of course the latter is the reason for the “excess” ethanol production.

Nigel July 7, 2013 at 6:39 am

The problem is quite addressable in an area of the globe extremely well suited to large scale solar power development.
Desalination isn’t cheap – but neither is it prohibitively expensive, and using solar energy it’s entirely sustainable, too.

Steve Sailer July 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm

It doesn’t seem to pay even in North San Diego County. Maybe in Santa Barbara …

mulp July 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Well, when you can take the water from Arizona for free because you own it, paying to desalinate doesn’t pay. Arizona should pay to desalinate water in California, shouldn’t it?

ThomasH July 7, 2013 at 6:56 am

When water is priced at the MC of obtaining it, and dire events are still in the offing, I’ll worry. In both Egypt and Pakistan huge amounts of water are used to produce very water intensive crops such as sugar and rice. India subsidizes the electricity to pump ground water. Underpriced water in the dry Colorado (TX) basin is used for rice. It’s Econ 101 (at east I hope Econ 101 covers this). CO2 emissions, vehicular use of urban streets, ground water: a zero price for a scarce resource leads to growing problems.

mulp July 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm

If I use my water the way I want, is my water underpriced?

I thought economists think everything should be owned with nothing in the common because individual owners will more efficiently allocate resources. Those farmers own the water, so it must be efficiently and optimally allocated.

JWatts July 8, 2013 at 12:26 pm

LOL

Those farmers own the water, so it must be efficiently and optimally allocated.

The farmers in question don’t own the water, they are lobbying the government to give them free or heavily subsidized water. If they actually owned the water, some of then would stop producing high-water crops and sell the water they freed up to the highest bidder. And more than likely this problem would disappear.

Axa July 7, 2013 at 7:06 am

Is there any record in the history of state nations that a war blockage in food trade have made a state nation fall? The food sovereignty is so XX century.

Extensive wheat production in Saudi Arabia is not a good idea 100 years before or now due to climate. Why does people happily buy a chinese smarthphone and goes completely paranoid about the origin of wheat?

lxm July 7, 2013 at 5:10 pm

An argument can be made that the arab spring was caused, or at least ignited by, a spike in food prices caused by, among other things, ethanol production and financial speculation. See here, for example: http://m.guardiannews.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/dec/20/speculative-scrum-driving-food-prices

So while I hope human ingenuity will solve all these resource issues, I fear there will be much destruction before it is all worked out.

dearieme July 7, 2013 at 7:39 am

“For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline.” How can people say such stupid things?

JWatts July 8, 2013 at 12:28 pm

Because there’s no tax on saying stupid things?

Duracomm July 7, 2013 at 9:15 am

As Axa already mentioned many of these problems are driven by bad government policy (hello ethanol, hello Saudi irrigated wheat). The easiest fix (and one of the most difficult politically) is to end ag subsidies, including ethanol and other biofuel mandates.

The current government policy landscape means that attempting to reduce meat consumption is a highly ineffective way of changing grain production as grain production is economically attractive and low risk because of government mandates and policies.

If a person has ethical concerns over meat consumption ending subsidies for grain production is the fastest most effective approach to the issue. High grain prices improve the economic competitiveness of open and extensive meat production methods and reduce the economic competitiveness of more intensive confined meat production methods.

Edward Burke July 7, 2013 at 9:32 am

Could this item suggest rather that The Guardian’s enthusiastic editorial and publishing practices in one news domain (national security, let’s say) detract from its credibility in other areas (ecological fear-mongering)?

Rahul July 7, 2013 at 9:49 am

Does sound like fear mongering.

I put together some graphs for wheat production in Saudi, Iraq, Iran, India and Pak. I don’t see the drastic declines the article is alarmed about. On an average wheat production rose by 60% in these nations over the last 15 years.

http://bit.ly/wheat_stats

I could have made an error in numbers though…..

gwern July 7, 2013 at 10:13 am

> Isn’t literally the whole point of reports like this the idea that such a trend cannot continue? Nor, in the absence of some emergent technology or redistribution, do I know why anyone would assume that it does. It’s like pouring a finite glass of water and remarking when it’s a tenth full that all is okay since the flow has remained constant.

Rahul July 7, 2013 at 10:47 am

Would be true if this were the first such doomsday report. Over history we’ve had many similar alarmist reports for one reason or another; at times we are variously running out of water, nitrogen, phosphorus, land or micro-nutrients.

Fortunately human ingenuity has prevailed. I see no reason why it won’t again. Of course, best test: Let’s look at this graph 5 years from now.

PS. Lester Brown has been predicting disaster for years. His 1995 book Who Will Feed China? made it sound food disaster was just around the corner for China. I’m still waiting.

Steve Sailer July 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Yeah, look at those bozos 6,000 years ago who worried the Sahara wouldn’t always remain a green pastureland.

mulp July 7, 2013 at 2:14 pm

Lester Brown was arguing central planners need to act.

Central planners in the US and China acted so US taxpayers are borrowing money from China to pay to produce food to feed China.

Asking questions is a good thing, don’t you think? That is what leads to the debates on policy leading central planners to act to solve problems the market solves by creative destruction.

Like in India where farmers creatively destruct on failure, sometimes killing their families before suicide, sometimes merely suicide to give their children the choice of becoming dependents of the welfare state.

Or in Africa where one group of people creatively destroy other groups as they fight over resources.

It does present a market opportunity for capitalists who are not driven by morality but only profit to more creatively destroy excess population throughout the world. In a market economy, the market should be used to solve the problem of excess unproductive people by creative destruction to maximize gains to society.

Rafael July 7, 2013 at 11:16 am

It’s wrong to say that this is the first time grain production is in a robust trend of decline in a region. Archaeologists have collected polen data that shows that grain production in ancient middle peaked between 500 BC and 200 BC, declining afterwards. A similar decline probably occured in Western Europe during the decline and fall of the WRE.

mike July 7, 2013 at 4:42 pm

ZMP people still need to eat. At some point we need to make some hard decisions, and the longer we wait the harder they’ll be.

Floccina July 9, 2013 at 9:27 am

and the longer we wait the harder they’ll be

That is not always true. Often a new technology solves a problem before it reaches the predicted severity.

Techreseller July 8, 2013 at 11:59 am

Read “Dune”. The underlying story was about a civilization that believed and trusted a man who said I have a solution to your water problem, It will take about 500 years to solve and here is what needs to be done. And they did it. Humans, if the solution is more than a year out, discount both the problem and solution heavily.

While the Saudis may be the first country to measure their water loss in terms of lost agriculture etc, many many people have been warning the Middle East that water will be become very scarce for over 30 years.

collin July 8, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Just as for years, the God played a joke on the West that all the cheap oil was in the Middle East. And God has turned the tables and all the cheapest grains are from the Western Hemisphere, dominated by US, Canada and Brazil. Where the problem occurs is what happens to the poorer Mid East not rich from oil?

CR

Floccina July 8, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Seawater farming and halophytes to the rescue. To my thinking they should not be doing much freshwater) agriculture in regions that dry, rather they should trade for food. Of course that points to bad policies of water priced too low.

Bogwood July 9, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Those who think of Julian Simon as the anti-Baal are feeling a little more smug. Carly Simons’ insights about humanity are more insightful:” You’re so vain.”

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