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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