It’s a unique paradox that 70% of the Earth’s surface is water, yet only about 1% of it is suitable for human use. Everything we need water for, whether it’s in our homes, commercial use, agricultural, or environmental needs all has to come from that tiny sliver of usable water.
Here in the US we use fantastic amounts of water on lawns, golf courses, and landscaping. The average family of four here can use 400 gallons of water a day, and the average person accounts for 150 gallons a day, far more than families in other countries. According to CBS News, people in the United Kingdom average 40 gallons of water per day and, in some developing countries, the daily water use figure is as low as 13 gallons.
The free ride on water may be coming to an abrupt and difficult end, for which we are poorly prepared. While there is some debate about the exact causes of the ongoing drought being felt in the western half of the country, the one point experts agree upon is that we’re using water faster than we can replace it. According to Natural Resources Defense Council, more than a third of all counties in the lower 48 states will face significant risk from water shortage by 2050, less than 40 years in the future. Already water is the number one political topic, particularly in the west, and states are going to court to fight one another over the dwindling resource.
Get used to seeing higher food prices every time you walk in the store…
As California faces the hottest months of the year, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency in January, calling for sweeping cuts in water usage in the state. Setting a goal of a 20% reduction has turned out to be somewhat ambitious, with most cities reporting single digit reductions in water usage. Big water users can find themselves getting a personal visit from local and state officials, and some areas have already turned to rationing — with mixed success. The toughest admission we may have to face in the days ahead is that conservation alone may be insufficient to meet the rising demand for clean water.
Most people would have little difficulty adapting to a browner lawn, higher green fees, and a low-flow shower head — but the true potential for economic disaster runs much deeper, as a prolonged water shortage threatens the nation’s food supply. To meet the immediate agricultural shortfall, California, along with countries around the world, have been tapping deep aquifers for fresh water. The problem with that is aquifers recharge at a much slower rate than we’re pulling it out of the ground and, once that water is gone, it will take years for the levels to return to where they were, if ever.
Due to the effect of contracting in our food supply chain, it can sometimes take years for the effects of a water shortage to show up in food prices. According to experts, the prices increases we’re seeing today actually started with the drought conditions in 2012. If they’re right, that means the pain we’re all experiencing today at the grocery store is only the warm up act.
In these days of the global economy, US consumers may find themselves competing with consumers in other countries for food in strange ways. Not only is the U.S. shipping more milk and dairy products to China, but the Chinese are buying hay and alfalfa in increasing quantities, driving up winter hay costs for local farmers.
Thanks to some moderation in fuel prices, we haven’t yet felt the full effect of escalating food prices — but the pain is coming. For US consumers, rising food prices may impact family budgets; but when food prices rise 4% in other parts of the world, it causes riots and political instability.
What it all boils down to is, prepare to pay more for food in the days ahead, and get used to the unpleasant experience of seeing higher food prices every time you walk in the store. The hardest part may be the grim reality that the price hikes we’re seeing today are just the beginning.