Drying up. What happens to farms if there is no water?

NASA’s Landsat satellite images of the growing agriculture industry in the northern reaches of the Syrian Desert in Saudi Arabia. The aquifer water is expected to last another 25 years.

Four questions: First, if you are a farmer, and the bulk of all of the water that you need for your crops comes from an underground aquifer, what will happen to your crops when there is no more water left in the aquifer? Second question, what happen to food production if you are a country when 30% of all of your water for irrigation comes from underground aquifers? Third question, what happens to global food prices if two other major food producing areas also rely on underground aquifer water? Final question, what happens to food demand if over the next 38 years the world’s population increases by an additional 2-3 billion, reaching 9-10 billion on total?

The answer is, we have a problem.

In the United States, the Ogallala Aquifer is an immense body of underground water, spanning South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, COlorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. This vast body of water was created between two and six million years ago, takes thousands of years to recharge and is being depleted by 13 trillion gallons a year. It provides 30% of all of the agricultural irrigation water in the US.

If you live in Happy, Texas, you are fully aware of what happens when your part of the Ogallala Aquifer runs out, because it has already happened. The population is in free fall. Land that once supported corn and cattle now supports very little. The rest of the Aquifer is expected to last another 25 years before it runs out. Before it does so, the water may be so contaminated with run off from farms that it is too salty to use. Contaminants also include car oil and toxic waste.

Ogallala Aquifer increases and decreases in water 1980-1995.


It is not only the US, the largest agricultural export country in the world, that relies on aquifer water. A new article in Nature that came out last week shows that there are six major food regions that rely on aquifers that are running out: Western Mexico, the Ogallala region, the northern Arabian region, Persian region, Upper Ganges and the North China Plain. 1.7 billion people rely on this water directly. Of these India and China are the larger food producers with a combined population of over 2.5 billion people.

Nature magazine map of aquifer water


Finally, the world’s population continues to grow. Even if everybody stopped having more than 2 children population momentum would push us to the 9 billion level by 2050. It is likely to be higher than that.

So, to wrap up. 30% of current global food production may disappear in 38 years, leaving enough food production for 4.9 billion people, and the population may increase to 10 billion. Essentially, there will be enough food at current consumption levels for 50% of the world’s population.

Can anybody else see a problem here?

If you are an entrepreneur, you may see an opportunity as well.

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  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/235805896142376962/ @tristanfischer

    Article. Q: What happens to farms if there is no water? A: There will be enough food for 50% of the world’s population. http://t.co/O73QXduE

  • http://YourWebsite... Mark Perry

    To be fair they need effective land management. I read about a ancient city that used a desert aquifer and became very successful. As usual it outgrew the available supply and collapsed. Somewhat like the oil dependency we have for western success?

  • http://Www.photonutilites.com Adrian Taffinder

    Very good article, I have been telling a number of people about this for a while now, it’s amazing how oblivious the general population are. Interesting video below which reiterates some of the information below. Desalination is the key but can we do it at the scale we need?


    Best regards,

    • tristanfischer

      Many thanks for the link to the video. I just watched the whole thing (about 1 hr) and Lester Brown and I clearly share many of the same concerns. If anything he is more pessimistic than I am. Recommended viewing for others.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Solutioneur Andrew West

      Desalination requires energy, a lot of it – something else we’re running out of. Agriculture is a very innefficent industry. It needs to change.

  • http://twitter.com/speedmonkeymatt/status/235885821423652864/ @speedmonkeymatt

    Drying up. What happens to farms if there is no water? http://t.co/z91MayMj

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/236000670648504320/ @tristanfischer

    Article:Drying Up. What Happens To Farms If There Is No Aquifer Water? What happens if 1.7bn people rely on that water? http://t.co/LwKobigx

  • http://twitter.com/waterviolier/status/236035770585055232/ @waterviolier

    Drying up. What happens to farms if there is no water? – History, Future. Now. http://t.co/4bglrqAr laen wij zuinig zijn op ons grondwater

  • http://YourWebsite... Costin Rusu

    The World need condoms !
    Posted by costin rusu

    • tristanfischer

      Funny, true and it will cause other issues. Our economies are built on the supposition that they will grow. With declining populations growth as we understand it does not take place. The tax burden on the young increases and the old don’t get their expected pensions.

      • http://YourWebsite... costin rusu

        Day by day, the world resources are lower !
        The world can not feed to infinity this madness

        • http://YourWebsite... Tristan Fischer

          Also true. So there will have to be a choice.

  • http://YourWebsite... Aliya Beissova

    Very worrying and yet most people are oblivious, indeed.. and the saddest part is that there are available solutions to the issues, yet, they are not being used.. at least not at a required global scale – for example, the holistic management method of Allan Savory.

    Posted by Aliya Beissova

  • http://YourWebsite... Stephen Russell

    Higher Food prices, food wars, riots, strife, alone worldwide, some areas worse IE India, Pakistan, So China, Mynamar, Vietnam, Iran, Iraq?
    Posted by Stephen Russell

    • http://YourWebsite... Tristan Fischer

      And where will those people go? Will they be welcome?

  • http://YourWebsite... Oliver Sparrow

    Perhaps one answer is to think about seawater irrigation of deserts, with fo course good brine drainage. There are two takes on this: one is to use halophytes for biomass energy/ material supplies – coastal rushes, mangroves etc – and the other is to breed food crops that are salt tolerant and do not accumulate salt int he harvested portions. There has been s a surprising amount of work on this.

    In respect of the energy crop, go to syngas and by steam shift to hydrogen; all well established an inexpensive technology. Now take bio-derived carbon compounds and sythesize paraffins such as diesel and gasoline: behold, totally green vehicle fuels.
    Posted by Oliver Sparrow

  • http://twitter.com/ForesightExpert/status/236396843720929281/ @ForesightExpert

    Drying up. How many farms depend on aquifers in the world? What happens to farms if there is no water? http://t.co/GAKK2FE0

  • http://www.solutioneur.com Andrew West

    Agriculture and electricity generation use +80% of our fresh water. There are ways to change that, now. Aeroponics and cooling power plants with Nitrogen. We are working on a Demonstration project.


  • http://twitter.com/robpatrob/status/236464871384965121/ @robpatrob

    Drying up. What happens to farms if there is no water? – History, Future. Now. http://t.co/Vi66HNnI

  • Pingback: Roots: A historical understanding of climate change denial, creationism and slavery – 1629-1775 - History, Future. Now.

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/237543560176619522/ @tristanfischer

    Article. If 30% of global food production comes from aquifers, what happens in 25 yrs when the water has gone? http://t.co/LwKobigx

  • http://twitter.com/AmbassadorHope/status/238607254876725248/ @AmbassadorHope

    Drying up. What happens to farms if there is no water? – History, Future. Now. http://t.co/PT8AAlYn

  • http://twitter.com/AROCpanama/status/239135378131533827/ @AROCpanama

    Mira como se agota el AGUA en el Mundo – y cómo afecta nuestra Alimentación :(… http://t.co/SpcLLBR0

  • http://twitter.com/AROCpanama/status/239135611049615360/ @AROCpanama

    Mira como se agota el AGUA en el Mundo – y cómo afecta nuestra Alimentación :(… http://t.co/Dk2rEtx6

  • Pingback: Why land deals in Africa could make the Great Irish Famine a minor event - History, Future. Now.

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/241591833229144064/ @tristanfischer

    Friday Read: 30% of global food production comes from aquifers that will run out in 25yrs. What happens after that? http://t.co/LwKobigx

  • krishna dutt

    Terrifying and helpless. As long as there is greed minds are not freed to think about the inevitable that is staring at us from a distance , hurtling towards us at unimaginable speeds. Another big bang towards complete extinction of human race.
    Posted by krishna dutt

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/254475864077647872/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Saturday Read. 1/3 of agriculture relies on underground aquifer water which will run out in 25 yrs. Then what do we do? http://t.co/LwKobigx

  • Pingback: Dealing with the consequences of climate chance inaction: the impact of food - History Future Now

  • http://twitter.com/tristanfischer/status/267249700116246529/ Tristan Fischer (@tristanfischer)

    Saturday Read: What happens to farms if there is no water? What happens to food production? Not pretty. Read on. http://t.co/LwKobigx


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