Australia's rice production drops to practically zero because of water shortages; Image via SF Gate
We talk about drought in California, rainwater capture issues in Colorado, and fresh water troubles in the South East. But, as water expert Peter Gleick pointed out yesterday, we haven't a clue about what a real water crisis looks like. Australians do. As we discussed during June when we examined Peak Water, Australia has some serious water woes, and the reality of it is playing out in their food production. This is more what it looks like to have a water crisis on your hands. Rice is a water intensive crop, but it can grow just about anywhere. Australia's history of growing rice started in the 1920s, and the crop flourished during the 1950s through the 1990s when there was above-average rainfall and irrigation water was cheap. Rice production was so great that it became an export crop to Japan.
However, it has been grown in typically arid regions, and is clearly unsustainable, especially now in the face of severe drought. Production has dropped from 1.6 million tons in 2000 to a mere 18,000 tons in 2008.
Rethinking not only crop choice, but also essentially eliminating an export crop that just doesn't jive with reality is one of the many impacts of a water crisis. California, despite serious issues in agricultural water use - including wasteful water practices, unsustainable rerouting of water from rivers to crop lands, and pesticide and fertilizer runoff - has not yet seen this kind of radical drop in production of a typically staple crop. (In fact, it might be a great year for California rice production since Australia isn't much of a competitor right now.) But, it's a matter of time.
Australia has already made major changes to water consumption, returning their water use per capita back to the rates seen in the 1970s. According to Gleick, changes include everything from implementing grey water recycling to reducing industrial water use by 30%, from raised prices for municipal water to requiring rainwater collection tanks installed in some areas.
Taking the experience of Australia to heart now can help other areas be proactive about water use and avoid sharp changes in agriculture, and therefore economy, such as what Australia is now facing. Getting started today and reduce our water use to only what we need as well as make practical decisions in the agricultural sector, can help a region avoid a more dire crisis in the future.
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