(This article was written by Layan Said, PhD. Dr. Said is the Executive Director of our Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Division)
Humanity’s environmental impact on our Earth has reached an unprecedented scope, and it is getting worse. “The systematic destruction of the Earth’s natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged. The bill we hand our children may prove impossible to pay.” (Achim Steiner, UNEP’s former Executive Director)
In my last treatise, which dealt with, in part, the systemic disappearance of our arable agricultural lands and the projected global consequences, which portends economic, political, and civil chaos, I only made reference the land/soil/human aspect of our predicament. (THE INFALLIBLE WAY TO GLOBAL FOOD SECURITY )
The most important component of the total planetary matrix is the WATER, quantity and quality. It is the most pervasive substance on Earth and, as far as we know, is not found on any other planet in our solar system. Its total finite volume is 1.41 billion cubic kilometers; that is all, we get no more. If this amount of water was spread evenly over a flat earth’s surface, the water layer would be approximately 10,000 feet high. But, 98% (9,800 feet) of this water is salt water of the oceans, inland seas, and deep underground basins. The remaining 2% (200 feet) is freshwater. Eighty-seven per cent (87% – 174 feet) of the 2% is locked in ice caps and glaciers, and most of the rest is underground, in the soil, in the atmosphere, and in living things. This means that the remaining 13% or 26 feet of the 10,000 feet of water are available to satisfy human needs, and almost all of this water is already contaminated and in short supply.
Currently, DNA, our Planet’s very code that defines life, is at risk. Ninety-nine point nine per cent (99.9%) of all life that ever existed is now extinct. The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions, the latest of which occurred 65 million years ago (GEO-4).
A sixth major extinction is under way, this time caused by human behavior. One hundred-plus species become extinct everyday (bio-genocide) due to tropical deforestation (World Resources Institute).
As we begin to reflect on the fixity of our productive resource base, the paradox becomes clear. While our arable land base is fixed and our population growth is incessant, water may well be the determining factor of our lifestyle and livelihood, indeed, even our own survival as a species!
To put the global water crisis in proper perspective, with strategic meaning for us in the United States, let us consider our own Ogallala Aquifer. The Ogallala Aquifer has been noted as the largest freshwater aquifer in the world. It is a shallow water table aquifer located beneath the Great Plains and underlies approximately 174,000 square miles (450,000 sq.km.) in portions of eight states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas), which comprise one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.
According to the High Plains Underground Water District data, The O. Aquifer has dropped 325 billion gallons every year since 1969. As vast as the O. Aquifer is (holding about 27% of the irrigated land in the U.S.) and holding 3 billion acre feet of water (1 acre-foot equals 1 acre covered by 1 foot of water or 325,000 gallons of water), it could run dry in 50 years and if so, the Aquifer will take over 6,000 years to replenish naturally through rainfall. In many areas, the aquifer has already dropped below the minimum depth for large-scale irrigation, its primary use (1.7 million acres of farmland). Some wells that produced 500 gallons per minute now give up 50 gallons per minute. This system also supplies drinking water to 82% of the people who live within the boundaries of the High Plains.
Hello California’s drought-torn Central Valley!
Although the water in the Aquifer appears to be inexhaustible, and could cover all 50 states with 1.5 feet of water, while producing $20 billion in food and fiber (breadbasket of America), supplying one-fifth of the total annual U.S. agricultural harvest, production is based on geologic or fossil water. It is a hydrologic fact that when this liquid treasure is gone, it’s GONE for the intended uses.
Farmers across the region have made a Faustian bargain – giving up long-term conservation for short-term gain. To capitalize on economic opportunities, sometimes offered by the regulatory agencies, landowners are knowingly “mining” a finite resource, which will inevitably cause a massive agricultural collapse due to the demise of one of the largest underground freshwater supply in the world.
It follows that when food becomes scarce or expensive, populations will fall. After all, there is only so much food to go around. After the O. Aquifer runs dry, America’s food production will plummet. Starvation will be the plight of those who cannot afford to pay the sky-high prices for food.
Aquifer depletion is not just unique to the U.S., it is a global problem. India, China, and even the Middle East all are in the midst of a water crisis.
Once the water is gone, the croplands that depend on it dry up. Following that, erosion kicks in, and the winds blow away the dry soils in a “Dust Bowl” type of scenario.
Such is the legacy of conventional agriculture, which is based almost entirely on non-sustainable practices. Its insane reliance on fossil water, petroleum fertilizers, toxic pesticides, and GMOs will only lead our world to agricultural disaster.
What’s becoming increasingly obvious is that local/homegrown authentic food production is going to become a critical survival skill. This means that we must have a science/common sense-based understanding of soil, water, open-pollinated seeds, organic fertilizers, soil probiotics (beneficial soil microorganisms, insect pollination, and much more – a whole set of skills that have faded away in America in just two generations, leaving very few people who know how to live off their own land.
Layan Said, PhD, Soil Physicist
Executive Director Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources
GDM Distributors, Inc.