When Will the Water Run Out?

This is the first in a series of articles dealing with resource constraints.  While I covered these issues in my book, Planet In Distress, I did not try to place the depletion of various resources on a timeline.  This I will attempt to do now, with the caveat that data on some issues and areas is sparse so, necessarily, some estimating (okay, lets be honest and call it guesstimating) is necessary at some points in the series, including this first article.

My timelines are not related so much to absolute depletion of resources (is it really necessary to try and pinpoint the date when we will use the last of the phosphate rock when, in fact, any reduction in phosphate availability is more or less catastrophic for the world’s poor?) but rather to the point at which resource depletion starts to measurably exert pressure on societies, forcing adaptation and increasing costs/reducing production and resulting in societal fragility, conflict, and marked suffering by the poor.  The establishment of timelines is important within the context of the thesis underlying Planet In Distress, which is this:

Sin resulted in a degree of separation of creation from its creator (for Bible texts underpinning this thesis, please see my book) which in turn resulted in death – the consequences of sin are death.  This death extended not just to plants, animals, and humans, but to the whole world and specifically to the massive, complex, and exquisitely balanced systems that God put in place to sustain life on earth – our oceanic system, fresh water system, food production system (soil and related sub-systems), atmospheric system, climate system, etc.  These systems are significantly degraded as a result of the accumulated consequences of sin, and their degradation is rapidly accelerating in our generation, leading to a multitude of natural disasters.  The rapid acceleration of these systems is placing massive pressure on human society just as humans – now numbering over seven billion – are reaching the limits of resources all over the world.  Given the sinful nature of humans, resource constraints lead to extreme tensions inside and between societies, which in turn leads to conflict, disease, famine, etc.  The entire cycle of events exactly fulfills Christ’s prophecy in Matthew 24:6-8 regarding events at the close of time.

That, I admit, was a lengthy thesis.  Suggestions for making it more concise are welcome.

Back to why a timeline is important – this blog (and my book) are ultimately focused on the imminent second coming of Christ and on the work that needs to be done to prepare the world for His return.  Seeing and understanding the events on earth that foreshadow His return is something we are instructed to do in Mark 13:33-37.  In the spirit of fulfilling this commission from Christ, below is my analysis of aquifer depletion around the world, when we will see more and more of its impact, and how some of that impact will be felt.

The most important things to understand about aquifer depletion are, 1) just how important the resource is and, 2) just how limited and irreplaceable it is.  Lets start with important.  In heavily populated countries all over the world, surface water is either all used up or is toxically polluted or both.  But the earth’s seven billion people need to drink and eat, and agriculture uses massive amounts of water, so these heavily populated countries have used aquifers – think of them as underground lakes – to meet their needs.  These are underground lakes that filled up during the flood or over thousands of years.  We cannot sustain the world’s population without aquifers – full stop.  That is how important they are. Problem is, these countries are pumping their aquifers as fast as they can, which brings us to #2 above – the aquifers are really, really limited.  Once pumped out, they will not fill back up again in anything less than thousands of years.  The billions of people that rely on these aquifers have no other realistic options for the massive amounts of water they need.

Mankind needs water for all sorts of things – agriculture, industry, etc.  However, in our analysis, lets just look at agriculture and use that as a proxy for all the things man uses water for.  And lets confine our analysis to just three countries – The United States, India, and China.  Why these three countries?  Simple.  These three countries produce most of the world’s grain.  If any of these three countries significantly reduce their grain production, it will destabilize nations all over the earth and result in widespread famine and conflict. Lets start with the US.

The US relies on the Ogallala Aquifer to irrigate more than 25% of its grain crops.  The Ogallala Aquifer underlies parts of eight states – Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, small parts of Wyoming and South Dakota, and all of Nebraska.  The aquifer almost exclusively provides water for just about every activity that goes on above it – agriculture, industry, towns and cities.  The aquifer is already shrinking at the margins at the same time water levels are dropping, and scientists anticipate that it may be completely depleted by as early as 2035.  However, as we are seeing with almost everything, use rates and depletion dates keep accelerating, not receding.  We may see the Ogallala play out by as early as 2030 or sooner if droughts keep occurring (as they are forecast to do).  But looking at the end date is deceptive.  The depletion of the Ogallala has already started.  In areas of Texas that use the Ogallala, water districts are, for the first time ever, limiting pumping of the water.  In Oklahoma, farmers are actually asking the state to regulate use of water from the aquifer.  Thus, resource availability is already limited at the margins and each year it will become more limited, with impacts on grain production increasing as time goes on.  Less water doesn’t immediately mean far less grain, it first means adaptation (changing the way the water is applied to the crops, drilling deeper and deeper wells, etc.) which may slightly decrease production while driving up costs.  Farmers who can’t afford to adapt quit producing.

The impact of the current use restrictions on the entire US grain crop is quite minor – lets say a reduction of 1% or less – while the depletion of the aquifer will nmean as much as a 20% reduction in the US grain crop by 2035 or sooner.  While impacts such as we are discussing are never linear, for the purposes of this discussion lets say that US grain production will fall by 1% for each year for the next 20 years as a result of the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer.  This is a bigger deal than the raw numbers may convey.  The US is a major grain exporter – its feeds a significant part of the world’s population.  Even a 5% decrease in US grain production means a spike in global grain prices.  As this blog has frequently pointed out, food price spikes lead immediately to unrest and conflict in countries that are already weak and where people currently spend as much as 60% of their income on food.  A 10% price increase is absolutely devastating for people in this situation.  As of this writing, global food prices are just under the point where broad societal conflict can be anticipated, and it is expected that this critical price point will be reached in spring of 2013, accompanied by food riots in poor countries and increased conflict within and between societies.

The story of US aquifer depletion does not end with the Ogallala.  The aquifer underlying the California Central Valley (which is a major vegetable basket for all of the US) is dramatically depleted (and polluted) and is a slow-motion disaster in progress.  For more on the California situation and on the link between aquifer depletion and a global food crisis, see here.

So, in the US we are already seeing the effects of critical aquifer depletion and we can expect to see the effects steadily rachet up over the next 20 years, ultimately decreasing our food production capacity by up to 1/3 (combining the effects of the Ogallala and the Central Valley aquifers).  This will mean a tremendous increase in the price of food, in particular the price of meat (which is mostly grain-fed).  The contraction of US aquifers is more than enough to bring about societal conflict and famine in poor countries around the world in the next 10 years.  That is a bracing thought, but the  impact from US aquifer depletion is minor compared to the expected impacts of aquifer depletion in  India.

India is already deep into a major water crisis.  Through much of the country, groundwater tables are dropping rapidly and most major cities suffer from severe water shortages.  Add to this the fact that significant new studies (using extremely clever new satellite technology) confirm major and accelerating groundwater loss throughout the critical crop-growing regions of the country, and you have a problem.  Take into consideration the fact that India is barely feeding itself and is a seething mass of frustration and anger waiting to be uncorked and channeled, and you have a crisis.

It is estimated that 60% of India’s groundwater sources will be in a critical state in the next 20 years (for an excellent analysis of India’s groundwater situation, follow the above link).  The aquifer loss that is most keen in India underlies agricultural areas, and the progression of water sources to a critical state may reduce agricultural output from those areas by, say, 50%.  As a whole, the national food production level may decrease by as much as 30% over the next 15-20 years – a contraction of as much as 2% per year.  This rate of contraction is more than enough to bring about the beginning of  societal conflict and famine in the next five years, with the situation growing steadily worse thereafter.

As if that were not bad enough, we now look at China, which is a water disaster.  China currently has some 1340 million people living in it.  That is 1.34 billion, but it is hard to get one’s mind around the number.  For instance, I live in the state of Maine in the US, which has a population of about 1.32 million. China has 1000 people for every person in Maine.  That is a lot of people (to be fair, China’s population density, or people per square kilometer, is only 8 times that of Maine).   It takes a great deal of food to feed all those people, and it takes a tremendous amount of water to produce all that grain.

The problem with trying to determine an end-point with the China water situation (X aquifer is expected to be depleted by X year) is that such data is simply not available for China.  I am not saying it does not exist.  I am saying it is not available.  What we do know, though, is that China’s groundwater tables have dropped like a rock over the last two decades, and that in many areas that used shallow wells only a generation ago, water is now being pumped up from half a mile deep or deeper.  The Chinese are using modified oil-drilling technology to drill new wells, and they are using some of the biggest and most expensive pumps available to bring the water up at enormous cost and using enormous amounts of electricity.

No less an authority than Lester Brown estimates that the China aquifer crisis is extremely bad but not quite as bad as India’s (actually, Lester Brown’s article is on aquifer depletion in general and is a truly excellent overview – you really should read it).  So, based on the estimate above for the reduction in India agricultural output, I estimate that China will see a contraction in grain output of about 1% per year for the next 20 years or so.  Lack of data for China makes a more precise estimate impossible.

It is hard for me to overstate how huge an impact the combined contraction of food production by the US, India and China will have on the world food situation, as wealthy nations buy food from the rest of the world and billions of poor get priced out of the market.  And this is just the food impact.  This brief article is not addressing the forced migration, increased disease, poverty and conflict over remaining water that is already occurring and will increase dramatically.

So – when will it happen?  It’ s happening now, and it will get worse every year.  Expect it to be very, very noticeable within the next 5-10 years – and by very noticeable I mean that those who follow Christ’s instruction to watch should plainly see the fulfillment of prophecy in this sector within the coming decade, and it will just get worse and worse after that.  By any measure, time is very short.

So, you ask, if the global aquifer situation is really as bad as I paint it, why haven’t you heard of this issue before?  Well, it is not for lack of the media trying to tell you – read through all the articles I link to above.  The truth is that people don’t pay attention to huge, complex, slow-moving disasters – they just don’t, perhaps because of normalcy bias.  But the actual reason you have not heard of it is because in the day of the coming of the Son of Man it will be as it was in the days of Noah – the people of the world are focused on the pursuit of pleasure and gain and do not focus on destruction until it is upon them.

Of course, aquifers are just one of the converging resource shortages we are seeing.  There is much, much more bad news.  I will cover another depleting resource next week and provide time-lines.  For how these resource shortages interact with our global complex society, weakening it and further setting up the fulfillment of prophecy, see my book or see other posts on this blog.

Scott Christiansen