Global water crisis: A future of scarcity

The March for Water arrives in Guatemala City on Earth Day, April 22, 2016. Photo by Patricia Macías.
By Richard Brown

Guatemala’s intensifying water conflicts may become the new global normal, according to a US diplomatic cable recently published by Wikileaks, called “Tour D’Horizon with Nestle: Forget the global financial crisis, the world is running out of fresh water.”

The 2009 cable reports that Nestle, the world’s largest food company and a major water bottler, believes that current trends mean “one-third of the world’s population will be affected by fresh water scarcity by 2025, with the situation only becoming more dire thereafter and potentially catastrophic by 2050.” Nestle also predicted that “the world may face a cereals shortfall of as much as 30 percent by 2025.”

US officials were meeting with the company because Nestle’s “exceptional scale and international experience give Nestle credibility when talking to governments and agricultural policy-makers.”

The core of Nestle’s concern is the rising global demand for meat and dairy products. In presentations to policy-makers, “Nestle starts by pointing out that a calorie of meat requires 10 times as much water to produce as a calorie of food crops. As the world’s growing middle classes eat more meat, the earth’s water resources will be dangerously squeezed.”

According to Nestle, if all nations were to share the US diet high in meat and dairy, “global fresh water resources would be exhausted at a population level of 6 billion, which the world reached in the year 2000.”

Livestock, especially cattle, is at once a key driver of rising food prices, climate change, and deforestation in Guatemala and globally.

One-third of the world’s population will be affected by fresh water scarcity by 2025, with the situation only becoming more dire thereafter and potentially catastrophic by 2050.

Nestle also believes that there “is a real danger that biofuels [liquid fuels made from crops like corn and sugarcane] will increase the price of food in poor nations.”

In Guatemala, that has already happened. In March 2010, the government estimated that the average monthly cost of basic dietary requirements for a family of five, the “canasta básica,” was Q2,004. In March 2016, it was Q3,668. Rising food prices have contributed to a rising poverty rate that reached 67% in 2014. They also contribute to Guatemala’s staggering 49% rate of chronic malnutrition in children under five years old. Increasing droughts and flooding linked to climate change have played a role in raising food prices. But so have biofuels.

A 2013 New York Times article argues that new US and EU biofuel standards that mandate the presence of biofuels in vehicle gasoline have increased the cost of both imported food staples and those grown in Guatemala.

The new standards have reduced the supply of crops like corn available for human consumption on the world market, and have therefore raised prices. Guatemala today imports nearly half its corn, because free trade agreements like NAFTA led to a flood of industrially-produced US corn in Mexico and Central America since the mid-90s. Small farmers struggled to compete with industrial prices, and so per capita corn production in Guatemala fell sharply.

Meanwhile, Guatemalan sugarcane plantations are reaping higher profits and expanding, in a country where 5% of the population already controls at least 80% of arable land. These plantations, along with African palm, banana, and rubber plantations, regularly divert entire rivers and drain nearby aquifers, causing water shortages for small farmers.

This month, a shipment of 5,000 cubic meters of fuel-grade ethanol from Guatemala is due to arrive in Europe. Nestle estimates that it takes 1,000 liters of fresh water to produce 1.5 liters of ethanol. If that’s correct, those 5,000 cubic meters to be burned in Europe used 3.3 billion liters of fresh water from Guatemalan rivers and aquifers.