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Worldwide water suppy is a finite resource that must be managed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 19, 2013 - The earth’s population is growing, estimated to top 10 billion during this century. The earth’s supply of water is constant. Already, 70 percent of the world’s fresh water is used for agriculture.

Because the same amount of water will be needed to support agriculture for 2.7 billion more people by 2050, water is increasingly being viewed as a finite natural resource that must be carefully managed. It is estimated that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under the stress of water scarcity.

The United Nations has designated 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation, and March 22 as World Water Day.

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center will devote the next two of its conversations programs to water topics. “Water Availability and the Impact on Global Agriculture” will be discussed at 5:15 p.m., Thurs., March 21, at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, 975 N. Warson Road, in Olivette.

Speakers will be Roberto Lenton, executive director of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Instituteat the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Michael Doane, vice president of Sustainable Agriculture Policy at Monsanto.  The format will be a discussion moderated by Jim Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

“To ensure future global security in the face of a changing climate and growing competition for scarce water resources, we will clearly need to achieve more food security, for more people, with less water. It is hard to see how we could achieve this without a marked increase in the productivity of water use in agriculture and food production systems,” Lenton says.

“More crop per drop is our goal,” Doane says. Monsanto is working toward the goal in three areas: Crop protection products like Roundup are important in the development of no-till farming. Second, conventional seed genetics have led to strains that need only half the amount of water as older strains. Finally, biotechnology can lead to damage abatement. For example, corn rootworm protection allows roots to develop earlier and go deeper into the soil, where the water is.Roberto Lenton

Lenton, a native of Argentina, has directed a number of international water use programs including the United Nations Sustainable Energy and Environment Division in New York and the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka.  As he pointed out in a recent symposium sponsored by his institute, “the problems and solutions will differ from case to case.”

There are, however, some universal generalizations. Farmers think about maximizing yield to make a living or feed their families in some areas of the world. Nations need to have policies to ensure food security, leaving sufficient water for uses other than agriculture — such as energy production and industrial needs. Globally, it is necessary to use water where it is available to feed people living elsewhere.

Cities place a huge demand on water supplies. As urbanization increases, water treatment facilities become stressed, and industrial water use grows.

Both speakers are concerned with the effects of climate change on water use and availability.  Water management for agriculture has to cope with severe drought, like last summer in St. Louis, as well as more frequent floods. 

When water is in short supply, conflicts can ensue. This winter, Missouri and the Dakotas disagreed over diversion of water from the Missouri River to enable barge shipping on the Mississippi, which had become very low due to the drought of 2012.

Lenton cites a current bitter international conflict in Central Asia. Tajikistan plans to build a major dam on a river that flows into Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan views this dam as a potential major hindrance to its economic development.

The Danforth Center “conversations” series is free to the public, but reservations are necessary because of limited seating.