Ron Smith, Editor

December 29, 2008

6 Min Read

Water and energy are the two most fundamental resources of modern civilization and demands for each are increasing at what may be an unsustainable rate.

The world will need to find ways to conserve these vital resources, and soon, say David Pumphrey and Erik Peterson, both with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. They discussed energy and water issues recently at the Sourcing USA Summit in Austin, Texas.

Even with recent drops in oil prices, Pumphrey said, the world continues to face significant concerns about sustainable energy. “Two key (energy) challenges face the United States and the world: adequacy and security of our oil supply for the future — mostly for the transportation sector — and transformation of our energy system to meet climate change concerns,” Pumphrey said.

Shifting to a low carbon-based energy system will be critical, he said.

Water availability will be an equal or greater challenge, Peterson said. “Currently, significant areas across the world have no guarantees of water quality. And the cost of bringing water to people is significant.”

Peterson said water use patterns across the globe are becoming unsustainable. “Future water shortages will challenge human health and the environment.” He said water needs must be at the core of government strategies in the future.

“In some areas water supplies are already limited by lack of economic development.”

Pumphrey said growth in energy consumption has stabilized for now, a consequence of the global economic crisis. “We see a marked decrease in consumption in developed countries,” he said. “That may be offset somewhat by continued growth in developed countries. But the balance is zero growth.”

That stagnation likely will not last. “If global demand increases without adequate investment in new production capacity, we run the risk of a significant gap in liquid fuel supplies.”

He said to maintain consumption between 2015 and 2039 the world would need to add as much oil as is currently being used. And getting that much oil could be problematic.

“Large resources exist,” he said, “but those resources are unevenly distributed and increasingly constrained by above-ground risk.”

He said conventional, easier to access oil supplies are in the Middle East. Resources in the Western hemisphere “are more expensive.”

He said oil supplies come with certain “geopolitical risks. Nigeria has civil unrest; Iraq has potential sabotage problems; Iran has nuclear ambitions; Russia has policy issues; China has increased domestic demand; and the United States has potential hurricane disruptions.

“Access is critical for oil reserves and most, from 80 percent to 90 percent, of the world supply is controlled by governments.”

And some sources remain untapped because of government and environmental concerns. Pumphrey said the United States has “large areas that have not been accessed, but those resources may not hold large amounts. The Arctic resource seems to be productive but likely will be more expensive to extract than originally thought. Global warming will add to the cost.”

Pumphrey expects to see compromise in the U.S. Congress on off-shore drilling but “not on Alaska.”

He said 60 percent of oil consumed goes into the transportation sector. “We have 250 million vehicles registered in the United States, 600 million worldwide (2002 figures).”

Changing use patterns will be important. He said more fuel-efficient vehicles, use of biofuels, and hybrid cars all will be part of a more energy-efficient transportation system.

Climate change, too, looms as a significant challenge for the energy industry. “The scientific community consensus is that we need to move on this issue. Failure will result in water scarcity, hunger and damaged ecosystems.”

He said an international goal is to reduce annual carbon release from today’s 27 gigatons to 14 gigatons. “Without change, the level will increase to 60 gigatons by 2060. A gigaton is enormous,” Pumphrey said. “Reducing carbon to 14 gigatons will require efficiency and technology.”

Even with that reduction, effects of global warming still affect the planet. “Some changes are irreversible,” he said.

Wind, solar and nuclear energy may replace some carbon-based energy. Wind energy is already making an impact, he said. “Solar is not yet competitive and nuclear needs financing.”

He said governments should put a price on carbon emissions. “They also must invest in energy technology research and development and build a new, intelligent electrical grid.”

He said energy policy should include a balance of environment, economics and security. “We see increasing international activity for energy efficiency. Consumers are pressing for sustainability.”

Peterson said water conservation presents a big challenge for agriculture, which accounts for 70 percent of water use. That leaves 30 percent for industry and manufacturing and for towns, cities and municipalities.

“By mid-century we will double our water demand.”

The task is formidable. “We have a finite supply. And the food production target for 2025 will require the flow of more than 100 Colorado Rivers or 10 Nile Rivers.”

As demand is rising, water resources are diminishing.

“Lake Chad is one-twentieth of its former size,” Peterson said. “And some of the world’s great rivers no longer consistently reach the ocean. That’s not sustainable.”

Continued water shortages, he said, will mean millions of people displaced, moving from areas of drought and famine to areas with more abundant water and food supplies. Conflict could result.

He said currently one-third of humanity is affected by water stress. By 2020 that number will reach two-thirds. “By 2030, 3.9 billion people will live in water-stressed regions.”

Water quality also will affect millions. “Water-related diseases already account for 5 million deaths a year and more than 4,900 children die every day from diarrhea. Half the world is mal-nourished and more than 2.5 billion people have inadequate sanitation.”

Developed countries take water for granted, he said. “One flush of a U.S. toilet equals one day’s water use in a developing country. The bottom line is that water policy goes beyond altruism. A far-sighted study will help define the impact of dislocation and will identify areas of competitive advantage.

“Water will have a significant impact on energy and agriculture.”

Clyde Sharp, an Arizona farmer, joined a panel discussion on water and energy and said agriculture is making strides to improve water and energy efficiency.

“It behooves farmers to do something about water conservation,” Sharp said. “We’re using more efficient irrigation, including drip systems.”

Cotton has made tremendous gains in water efficiency in the last 20 years, Peterson said.

Sharp also cited improvements in energy conservation. “We’re making changes in equipment,” he said. “We’ve switched to larger, more efficient units. Most growers run tractors differently. The cost of energy has affected how we do things.”

He said most of his equipment now has GPS units. “We level land with GPS and we have not stopped making changes.”

Even with lower energy prices, panelists agreed that many industry and farm changes will remain intact. “A lot of changes don’t go away when prices go down,” Sharp said.

e-mail: [email protected]

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith

Editor, Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 30 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Denton, Texas. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and two grandsons, Aaron and Hunter.

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