At food security conference, experts sound the alarm on water issues

By Aarian Marshall

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 - It's not a new story, and not a surprising one: The world is running out of water, and agriculture may be partly responsible. But for Herbert Oberhaensli, chief economist at Nestlé, that vague pronouncement is dire, and he has the numbers to back up his concern.

In 1900, Oberhaensli said in an interview, the world withdrew 600 cubic kilometers of water annually - 6 x 1014 liters, for the non-Europeans in the house. About 70 percent of that withdrawal was for agriculture. By 1950, those numbers had grown, to 1,400 cubic kilometers. And by 2010, they had spiked: that year, the world used 4,500 cubic kilometers of water.

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The worrying news, says Oberhaensli, whose company has direct contact with 650,000 farmers worldwide, is that only 4,200 cubic kilometers of water is sustainably available per year.

And unless something changes, the world is predicted to draw 6,900 cubic kilometers of water by 2030 - 60 percent more than is sustainable. 

“That would lead to a 30 percent shortfall in cereal production due to a water shortage by 2025 or 2030,” Oberhaensli said during a panel discussion on water at the Chicago Council's Global Food Security Symposium, held last week in Washington, D.C. “Action should be very urgent and hopefully after this session the understanding that action is necessary will increase.”

Former California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura, who also participated in the Chicago Council event, recalled what water shortages have done to Australia. By year eight of that country's extensive drought - around 2012 - the country had experienced a 50 percent drop in farm-gate production. Australian agriculture has yet to recover, he said.

“It's amazing how quickly we can get in trouble as an agricultural state,” Kawamura said, referring both to Australia's drought and the ongoing water shortage in California, which is responsible for nearly half the fruits and vegetables grown in the U.S.

California's situation has made the country more aware of what a future with diminishing water supplies could mean for the food supply. But according to Oberhaensli and Kawamura, government-directed policy changes are needed to preserve agricultural production, both in the U.S. and abroad.

“Creating shared value is understanding where we should be active ourselves and where we need to be a loyal partner,” Oberhaensli said of Nestlé's role in water issues. Though the company often sends specialists into developing countries to help farmers use their resources in efficient ways, the economist said it's difficult to orchestrate without the participation of local governments.

“Farmers in India have more urgent things to do than PR,” he said. “If you tell an Indian farmer that they have to be the most efficient farmer in India they say, ‘Go to hell.'” Instead, he advocates for public-private partnerships, between international groups like the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), governments and multinational corporations like Nestlé.

Oberhaensli also noted that governments need more efficient ways to price water resources. He points to Oman, on the Arabian Peninsula, as a model for those who are trying to set market prices for water. By tradition, Oman's tapped water is channeled and maintained by joint owners, who apportion water entitlements by days, hours, half hours and minutes.

“Especially in the case of water, water is first essential for life,” he told Agri-Pulse. “It's extremely politicized, a very emotional item - in some areas, a spiritual item…We need to fix it watershed by watershed.”

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