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LQD: Unsustainable irrigation

by Melanchthon Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 05:39:10 AM EST

Irrigated Agriculture: What countries are in danger?

Hat tip: Agriculture irriguée : quels pays sont en danger ? Libération {sciences²}

Agriculture requires water, and irrigation is growing. But where is this technique unsustainable because it uses non-renewable [water] stocks? This is the question answered by a long article published in the journal Water Resources Research .

A disturbing answer, because it shows that regions - even entire countries - important in terms of agricultural production have increasingly recourse to unsustainable irrigation. The impact of an agricultural water crisis due to the unsustainable use could extend beyond these regions and could have effects at global level, say the authors of this study.

front-paged by afew

Much of water used for irrigation comes from nonsustainable sources

Some of the water used for irrigation comes from renewable sources such as local precipitation, rivers, lakes, and renewable groundwater. But some comes from nonrenewable groundwater sources. Because water supply for irrigation is so essential to the world's food supply, it is important to quantify how much water comes from sustainable sources. Wada et al. (2012) conducted a global assessment of how much water used for irrigation comes from nonsustainable groundwater sources. They used a global hydrological model to simulate the amount of water needed for optimal crop growth and the amount available from renewable sources. They combined this information with country-level data on groundwater use to estimate the amount of groundwater used for irrigation that comes from nonrenewable sources. Their results show that about 20%, or 234 km3 yr-1, of the water used for irrigation worldwide in 2000 came from nonrenewable sources. The countries with the highest levels of nonrenewable groundwater use are India, Pakistan, the United States, Iran, China, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, worldwide, the use of groundwater from nonrenewable sources more than tripled from 1960 to 2000.

Abstract: Nonsustainable groundwater sustaining irrigation: A global assessment

Key Points
  • Global assessment of non-sustainable groundwater abstraction for irrigation
  • Non-sustainable groundwater globally contributes 20% to irrigation
  • Increasing dependency on non-sustainable groundwater in recent years

Water used by irrigated crops is obtained from three sources: local precipitation contributing to soil moisture available for root water uptake (i.e., green water), irrigation water taken from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, wetlands, and renewable groundwater (i.e., blue water), and irrigation water abstracted from nonrenewable groundwater and nonlocal water resources. Here we quantify globally the amount of nonrenewable or nonsustainable groundwater abstraction to sustain current irrigation practice. We use the global hydrological model PCR-GLOBWB to simulate gross crop water demand for irrigated crops and available blue and green water to meet this demand. We downscale country statistics of groundwater abstraction by considering the part of net total water demand that cannot be met by surface freshwater. We subsequently confront these with simulated groundwater recharge, including return flow from irrigation to estimate nonrenewable groundwater abstraction. Results show that nonrenewable groundwater abstraction contributes approximately 20% to the global gross irrigation water demand for the year 2000. The contribution of nonrenewable groundwater abstraction to irrigation is largest in India (68 km3 yr−1) followed by Pakistan (35 km3 yr−1), the United States (30 km3 yr−1), Iran (20 km3 yr−1), China (20 km3 yr−1), Mexico (10 km3 yr−1), and Saudi Arabia (10 km3 yr−1). Results also show that globally, this contribution more than tripled from 75 to 234 km3 yr−1 over the period 1960-2000.

Click on picture to enlarge

The authors' conclusion:

We argue that the unsustainability of groundwater use for irrigation is an important issue not only for the countries with intensive groundwater use, but also for the world at large since international trade directly links food production in one country to consumption in another. Rising population and their food demands are likely to increase the amount of nonrenewable groundwater abstraction for irrigation, particularly in emerging countries such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Mexico. This will result in falling groundwater levels which may eventually become unreachable for local farmers with limited technology.

Full article with maps and graphs (pdf)

Another article from the same authors:

Global depression of groundwater resources (pdf)

In 1963 in Tuscon I recall being told by a neighbor, who happened to be a hydrologist, that Tuscon was drinking fossil water that dated to the last ice age. The Central Arizona Project was intended to provide (contested) Colorado River water for agriculture. Instead, part of it is used for cooling by the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in west central Arizona, (I don't know if some of this water is then reused for agriculture), and a significant portion is now used by Tuscon to supplement, and hopefully reduce, ground water extraction.

Tuscon bought the water rights to the Avra Valley, west of the city, and has long been extracting ground water from that bone dry desert. Traveler's accounts from the 19th century describe the Santa Cruz river, which runs through Tuscon, as having rich riverine wetland with abundant waterfowl, and the water table was to the surface. Now water only flows during significant rain events and the water table is several hundred feet lower than in 1940, depending on location, and land subsidence in excess of ten feet has been measured in south central Arizona since 1940.

In Arkansas farmers in the delta are being forced to curtail crop irrigation in some areas because of excessive water table drops. In my local area we are surrounded by lakes and rivers which serve to recharge the water table. Even so I read of the 'de-watering' of the Ozarks, though I have not seen much in the way of specifics. The hydrology was one consideration in our choice to move here.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Feb 10th, 2012 at 02:03:23 PM EST
Now living here in Tucson, I can attest, it is DRY here. And the crazy thing is they are considering approving a big strip copper mind just south of Tucson that will further use up and pollute the aquifer.

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Fri Feb 10th, 2012 at 05:48:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The old Wobblie line about Arizona was that Arizona wears a copper collar.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Fri Feb 10th, 2012 at 07:44:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
most of western Texas was grassland. When agriculture arrived, it was primarily 'dryland' farming - meaning grasses and cereal plants grown without irrigation - and grazing land for livestock. People dug their wells to 30 or 40 feet deep.

When oil was discovered, the methane pressure was high enough to blow it out of the ground at first. Then simple beam pumps sufficed. After further removal, the operators had to pump water into the well to displace the oil upwards. The mineral companies had also discovered elemental sulfur deposits on top of 'salt domes'. To extract it, they heated water and pumped it into the deposits to sort-of melt it. In both cases the contaminated water that came out of the ground was evaporated by the Texas dry heat. Then cotton moved west, too, which required heavy irrigation. Nowadays the average water table is closer to 600 feet deep.

The Ogallala aquifer is one of the largest 'fossil water' impoundments in the world, and it underlies the Plains states from Alberta almost to Mexico. Renewable groundwater and surface waters are almost negligible nowadays until you reach the Platte and the Missouri which are fed by the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains (which are reduced year-on-year. Mirta and I were in Glacier National Park last August. Pretty soon it will be called the Former Glacier N.P.). The Ogallala has been tapped for the cornfields and such for some years now. It's average volume is falling, because there is no rapid re-charge system for it. In other words water use is unsustainable in the 'Breadbasket' of the U.S.A.

paul spencer

by paul spencer (paulgspencer@gmail.com) on Fri Feb 10th, 2012 at 05:02:39 PM EST
From the article:

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Fri Feb 10th, 2012 at 06:13:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The Arkansas River is likely the most significant source of recharge south of the Platte, but the aquifer along the Arkansas is clearly being pumped much faster than it is being recharged over most of its course into Oklahoma. In Kay County, Oklahoma, ten miles from where I grew up in Osage County - the biggest county in Oklahoma and the former Osage Reservation - Phillips Petroleum ran a 36" pipeline from well fields along the Arkansas over to the North Burbank Oil Field, atop of which I grew up, to feed a pattern of injection wells about every 1/4 mile.

There was a similar, offset pattern of recovery wells drilled with each injection well surrounded by four recovery wells. The oil was about 5,000' down and had produced gushers when first tapped around time of statehood in 1907. One then abandoned well not too far from where our house stood had produced light liquids that had so much octane that a car of that era would run on what came out of the ground. I would estimate that the field covered 50 to 100 square miles.

The field was pretty much completed by the late '50s and could still be in operation. In those days a around half of the liquid out of the recovery well was water, which was separated in primary treatment 'heater-treaters'. I remember seeing readings being taken from the standpipes on the sides of the holding tanks. I believe that the separated water was reinjected. It was highly saline, in addition to the VOC contamination.

At a minimum, depending on pump pressure in the water pipeline, this would represent the continual diversion of a 35 square foot portion of the river's flow. But there was still sufficient flow to fill the lake behind the dam that was built on the Arkansas in the '60s. The modern auditorium building, complete with sloped floor and fly stage, along with the kitchen/auditorium at the Shidler High School was paid for out of the 'ear-marks' that went with the authorization for the dam project, and was finished just before my senior year. I graduated in 1960.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat Feb 11th, 2012 at 07:54:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
So what that our civilization is depleting water, it's not like you can burn it for fuel.

Alternative comment:

Merci, Melancthon, for a very informative LQD. Peak water.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anaïs Nin

by Crazy Horse on Sat Feb 11th, 2012 at 06:52:05 PM EST
Further away from the USofA, one the biggest issue (and looming conflict) is around the Himalayas: China, India and Pakistan - respectively the first, second and sixth most populous countries - all rely on water supply from the Himalayan glaciers and seasonal snow packs. These glaciers have been receding for years:

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP

Meanwhile in Asia the lives of some 2.4 billion people?40 per cent of the current global population?are influenced by the summer meltwaters of glaciers in the Himalayas-Hindu Kush, Kunlun Shan, Pamir and Tien Shanan mountain regions.

These glaciers could shrink by between just over 40 per and up to around 80 per cent by 2100 under current climate models with some mountain ranges completely devoid of glacial coverage.

Rivers at risk include the Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Huang He or Yellow river where some 1.3 billion people could be at increased risk of water shortages and many more at risk of losing irrigation water for crops as well as disruptions to industry and power generation.

These are countries that have been at war at some point in the past 50 years and now have nuclear weapons. Not to mention the proximity of Iran (one of the non-sustainable countries) and Afghanistan, home of the Great Game. Clearly, some cause for concern.

by Bernard (bernard) on Sun Feb 12th, 2012 at 11:30:36 AM EST
I just saw something a few days ago (here perhaps) suggesting that Himalayan glaciers weren't receding. I thought it was probably crap, but the notion is out there.
by Andhakari on Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 07:29:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
M of A - China On Pollution Taxes - A Reverse NIMBY

Some people may recall that The IPCC stated in it's 2007 report that "Himalayan Glaciers will melt by 2035″ - some may also recall that the claim was clearly shown to be complete and utter nonsense

Himalayan glaciers melting deadline `a mistake'
By Pallava Bagla in Delhi

The Himalayas hold the planet's largest body of ice outside the polar caps

The UN panel on climate change warning that Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of current levels by 2035 is wildly inaccurate, an academic says.

J Graham Cogley, a professor at Ontario Trent University, says he believes the UN authors got the date from an earlier report wrong by more than 300 years.

He is astonished they "misread 2350 as 2035".

(If I put that in a novel, no one would find it at all plausible.)

Some may also even recall that when the ridiculous IPCC claim was first questioned, IPCC chairman Rajenda Pachauri famously labeled claims of the mistake "voodo science". He later had to retract that slur, amid some ebarrassment (but not much).

Now it appears there hasn't been any melt at all in the last 10 years.

The Himalayas and nearby peaks have lost no ice in past 10 years, study shows

The world's greatest snow-capped peaks, which run in a chain from the Himalayas to Tian Shan on the border of China and Kyrgyzstan, have lost no ice over the last decade, new research shows.

The discovery has stunned scientists, who had believed that around 50bn tonnes of meltwater were being shed each year and not being replaced by new snowfall.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty
by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 08:22:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Careful about interpreting an eight-year time series...

The Himalayas and nearby peaks have lost no ice in past 10 years, study shows | Environment | The Guardian

The scientists are careful to point out that lower-altitude glaciers in the Asian mountain ranges - sometimes dubbed the "third pole" - are definitely melting. Satellite images and reports confirm this. But over the study period from 2003-10 enough ice was added to the peaks to compensate.

So :

  1. the glaciers of the Himalaya are definitely receding, the measurements on the ground show this (and led to the inaccurate mass estimates).
  2. the satellite that allows them to measure this is only there since 2002. You can't get a useable trend out of 8 years of data.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 09:32:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's not just that farming is sucking the land dry, but industrialization will compete for ground water, and, depending on the application, argue that those needs are a 'higher' use requiring cleaner water.
Most of my experience with such matters comes from my time in Savannah Georgia where a 'cone of depression' is continually growing under the city and surrounding area, necessitating re-drilling wells to greater depths in the hundreds of feet where once artesian wells were common.
Paper, chemicals, agriculture and human consumption were all competing for the same diminishing resource, even while the Chamber of Commerce did all it could to increase the population and promulgate industrial uses of an aquifer that took perhaps a hundred years or more to recharge.
The alternative source of water is the Savannah River, loaded with DDT from old tobacco farms and always at risk from upstream nuclear activities.
What could go wrong?
by Andhakari on Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 07:41:40 AM EST
Upon further recollection, I believe the source of the DDT was cotton, and perhaps not so much tobacco. Speaking of cotton: that's a crop that's often grown with irrigation in areas with non-sustainable water supplies such as Arizona, etc.
How long has it been since the mighty Colorado River actually flowed to the sea -- 50, 60, 70 years?
by Andhakari on Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 07:48:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually it flowed to the ocean in the 1980s, when the upstream reservoirs were full.

We are having an interesting new discussion about water rights here in Colorado. As you know, in the western part of the U.S., where it is dry, all water is owned by someone. You cannot (with some exceptions) even have a rain barrel to collect runoff from your roof, because that water is owned by somebody else. This is all part of the 150 year old, complex legal and technical system that allocates the available water to agriculture and domestic use--or for fracking for gas or for processing "oil" shale. It's always been controversial, because the concept of "owning the rain" is fairly alien to conventional thinking.

Colorado has many immigrants from the wet areas of the eastern part of the country, where water is just there for the taking. A group of activists, represented by lawyer Phillip Doe, haw proposed an amendment to our state constitution (which is easy to amend) that would overturn the existing water rights system in favor of a public trust system. The stated goal is to keep the water out of the hands of those who don't deserve it, namely hobby ranchers and the gas and oil industry, but the side effects would be enormous and unpredictable. The idea has been kicking around for a while, but they are now actively trying to get it onto the ballot.

Given the lack of general understanding--even here--of how water is allocated to various uses, this amendment could pass. If it did, things could get interesting pretty fast.


by asdf on Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 10:51:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would be laughing my ass off if it did pass. As Mark Twain noted: "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting!"

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 07:50:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In the mornin you go gunnin'
For the man who stole your water
And you fire till he is done in
But they catch you at the border
And the mourners are all singin'
As they drag you by your feet
But the hangman isn't hangin'
And they put you on the street

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II
by eurogreen on Thu Feb 16th, 2012 at 05:06:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Before they go amending water rights, they might want to look at what a mess we had in Washington when it was ruled that the state water boards couldn't adjudicate water rights, only the superior courts could.  Absolute train wreck.

Here in Utah, everyone acts as if they have a divine right to flood irrigate everything.  When I first came here in the late '70s, I was amazed at the waste.  You'd have thought they were growing rice in their yards.

by rifek on Tue Feb 21st, 2012 at 03:47:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The DDT was mostly for mosquitoes, not just cotton. The reason Savannah does not have malaria anymore is that it was purged of the mosquitoes that carry it by applications of large amounts of DDT many years ago.
by santiago on Tue Feb 14th, 2012 at 05:42:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I assure you there are plenty of mosquitoes in south Georgia today. The DDT in question was applied in large quantities to croplands and has been held by the sediments beneath the river. The DDT is still there.
I wonder if you are thinking of savanna (no H) - a geographical feature. The City of Savannah never had a significant malarial epidemic that I can recall hearing about.
by Andhakari on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 02:12:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There's a lot of mosquitoes.  Just not the species that carry malaria.  That's why the innovator of using DDT for mosquito control was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine.  Crop use came later and was used everywhere worldwide, not just in Georgia, before being banned.
by santiago on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 08:22:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Are you suggesting that a particular mosquito was eradicated by DDT in the Savannah river valley, thereby minimizing the impact of malaria in that area? I find that assertion more than a little suspicious, and I would be interested in a link or other documentation.
DDT isn't species specific in its effect (unfortunately), and I would anticipate that any beneficial effects would also be short-lived.
by Andhakari on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 09:03:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, that is exactly what happened. That particular mosquito was eradicated in the US and other mosquitoes that were not eradicated now help prevent its re-emergence in the US through competition, along with other controls. The Swiss was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering DDT's use as an insecticide for this purpose.
by santiago on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 09:10:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Malaria - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Efforts to eradicate malaria by eliminating mosquitoes have been successful in some areas. Malaria was once common in the United States and southern Europe, but vector control programs, in conjunction with the monitoring and treatment of infected humans, eliminated it from those regions. In some areas, the draining of wetland breeding grounds and better sanitation were adequate. Malaria was eliminated from most parts of the USA in the early 20th century by such methods, and the use of the pesticide DDT and other means eliminated it from the remaining pockets in the South by 1951[60] (see National Malaria Eradication Program). In 2002, there were 1,059 cases of malaria reported in the US, including eight deaths, but in only five of those cases was the disease contracted in the United States.

See also:
Mosquito control - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Notwithstanding, DDT-resistant mosquitoes have started to increase in numbers, especially in tropics due to mutations, reducing the effectiveness of this chemical; these mutations can rapidly spread over vast areas if pesticides are applied indiscriminately (Chevillon et al. 1999).

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 10:44:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If ever there was a resource crunch amenable to technological fixes, this is it. Most of the planet is covered in water..  Forward osmosis desalinization looks like it is going to deliver freshwater at fairly reasonable prices, saltwater greenhouses produce large surpluses of freshwater along with produce... Maybe places a thousand kilometers from the nearest coast will end up having to switch to less water intensive crops, but... water wars in the middle east? Wars cost a hell of a lot more than desalination plants do, and this is blatantly obvious.
by Thomas on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 04:19:15 AM EST
The Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers are pretty much the only fresh water sources, aside from ground water, in 'the mid-east', and Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Israel and Jordan all have non-trivial military capabilities, especially Turkey, which could be a nuclear power if it wished. On the Arabian peninsula who is there to fight for water? Yemen, perhaps? Scarcely enough to make it worth while.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Wed Feb 15th, 2012 at 08:08:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
They also all have coastlines. The point I am making is very, very simple. Desalination plants on a sufficient scale to water a nation would cost tens billions, including the energy infrastructure to power them. Compared to the cost of even a short victorious war, this is chump change. Therefore, you would have to be a complete moron to go to war over water.
by Thomas on Thu Feb 16th, 2012 at 04:45:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sadly, complete morons are not rare.
by rootless2 on Sat Feb 18th, 2012 at 08:09:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Rainfed-dryland farming needs more investment

President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Wednesday called for more investment in agriculture, especially in rainfed and dryland farming, to achieve food security and inclusive growth.

Addressing a national workshop on policy initiatives in agriculture with particular reference to rainfed and dryland farming here, Patil said 60 percent of India's cultivated area were under rainfed and dryland farming, which provided 44 percent of country's production of foodgrains, including coarse cereals, pulses and oil seeds, and supported 40 percent of the country's 1.2 billion population.

'But it has very low investment as compared to irrigated areas. I think this needs urgent attention,' Patil said.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sat Feb 18th, 2012 at 02:57:04 PM EST

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