Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Global Trends 2025: Scarcity in the Midst of Plenty

As highlighted in the previous two posts, Chapter Four deals with resources - and the possibility of conflict that could arise when these resources become scarce. Three main resources - the basics of life - have the highest potential for tension: food, water, and energy. While energy tends to dominate the headlines, food and water may loom just as large for certain populations.

Experts currently consider 21 countries with a combined population of about 600 million to be either cropland or freshwater scarce. Owing to continuing population growth, 36 countries, home to about 1.4 billion people, are projected to fall into this category by 2025.

The World Bank estimates that demand for food will rise by 50 percent by 2030, as a
result of growing world population, rising affluence, and shifts to Western dietary
preferences by a larger middle class. The global food sector has been highly responsive to market forces, but farm production probably will continue to be hampered by misguided agriculture policies that limit investment and distort critical price signals. Keeping food prices down to placate the urban poor and spur savings for industrial investment has distorted agricultural prices in the past. If political elites are more worried about urban instability than rural incomes—a safe bet in many countries—these policies are likely to persist, increasing the risk of tight supplies in the future. The demographic trend for increased urbanization—particularly in developing states—underscores the likelihood that failed policies will continue.

In addition to the currently projected scarcities of freshwater and cropland, the UK
Treasury-commissioned Stern Report estimates that by the middle of the century
200 million people may be permanently displaced “climate migrants”—representing a ten-fold increase over today’s entire documented refugee and internally displaced
populations. Although this is considered high by many experts, broad agreement exists about the risks of large scale migration and the need for better preparation. Most displaced persons traditionally relocate within their home countries, but in the future many are likely to find their home countries have diminishing capabilities to accommodate them. Thus the number of migrants seeking to move from disadvantaged into relatively privileged countries is likely to increase. The largest inflows will mirror many current migratory patterns—from North Africa and Western Asia into Europe, Latin America into the US, and Southeast Asia into Australia.
We in the U.S. may not think these resources are ever in danger, but in recent years there have been disputes over water rights in several Southern states. Not just in traditional desert states - in 2007 Georgia and the Carolinas had major water shortages. And water shortages could spell trouble for those who rely on irrigation to produce crops as well. The Ogallala Aquifer in the midwest is being rapidly depleted, per wikipedia:

The Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted at a rate of 12 cubic km (420,000 million ft3 or 9.7 million acre feet) per year, amounting to a total depletion to date of a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers. Some estimates say it will dry up in as little as 25 years. Many farmers in the Texas High Plains, which rely particularly on the underground source, are now turning away from irrigated agriculture as they become aware of the hazards of overpumping.
A comparable replacement for this water may simply not exist, and a large portion of the folks that rely on this water for drinking and employment may be forced to make very difficult choices. And the millions of people who rely on the food grown in these states will be competing for reduced global reserves.

Other Global Trends Posts:
Global Trends 2025
Global Trends Update
Global Trends Update II
Globalization and the Crash of '08
Demographics of Discord
Timing is Everything
Winners and Losers in a Post-Petroleum World
Scarcity in the Midst of Plenty
Final Thoughts

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