A water shortage warning from the CEO of Nestlé, bio fuels adding another drain

“I am convinced that, under present conditions and with the way water is being managed, we will run out of water long before we run out of fuel.” Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe argues in the “The World in 2009” of The Economist (page 108) that water shortage is an even more urgent problem than climate change.

In 2009 the world needs to reflect on the underlying causes of the food crisis and start addressing structural factors, in particular the link to bio fuels and water. Since 2003 the trends in water have changed, but not for the better, Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe argues. And the craze for biofuels has added to the urgency of the water issue.

Meat requires ten times that water withdrawn per calorie by plants. Water withdrawals for agriculture and overuse continue to increase rapidly. This leads to sinking water tables in some of the most fertile regions of the world: America, Southern Europe. Norther India, north-eastern China. And now politicians have added another drain-bio fuels. It takes up to 9,100 litres of water to grow the soy for one litre of bio diesel, and up to 4,000 litres for the corn to be transformed into bio ethanol. “What is meant to alleviate a serious environment problems (climate change) is making another, even more serious problem (water shortage) worse”, writes Brabeck-Letmathe.


His solutions start with politics, for example stopping subsidies for bio fuels. Even more important, look for ways to use water in agriculture more efficiently. There is enough land and water to supply more meat to people in emerging economies. Efficient irrigation would reduce freshwater withdrawals almost half. Some crops are better grown in water-rich countries; others grow well with relatively little water. If water had a price (such as from locally tradable water rights, though of course not for basic human needs), and if farm products could be traded freely and without subsidies across borders, a water-efficient allocation of production would follow, he argues.

Nestlé (“Number one bottled water company worldwide”) has brought down its freshwater withdrawals for production from five litres per dollar of sales ten years ago to less than 1.8 litres. “We must all take the water issue seriously, better understand the link to food security and stop the trends to overuse of freshwater, The decisions of the coming years will determine whether a major global crisis of water and food shortage can be avoided.”

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