The world’s population tripled in the 20th century, but the thirst for water grew six-fold, the large majority sprinkled on fields. The UN predicts that, by 2025, two-thirds of us will experience water shortages, with nearly two billion suffering severe shortfalls. Today China, struck by terrible droughts in its agricultural heartlands, is the world’s biggest importer of “virtual water”: the billions of tonnes of water used to produce the food and other goods brought into the world’s most populous nation.
China, along with other water-stressed nations such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea, has sought to cut out the middlemen and acquire land in wetter places for themselves in order to grow and send food home. The so-called “land grabs” across the global south are the result ….
Desalination – with 14,000 plants already in existence – is one solution that is growing fast, but is energy-intensive, expensive and heavy on carbon. Even the few trials of solar-powered desalination plants will leave hypersaline water polluting the seas. Mega-engineering projects, such as China’s 50-year south-north water-diversion scheme, might also offer relief, at vast cost. And none of these address the other water problem: the lack of clean water and sanitation in wet nations too poor to provide them.
Carrington’s emphasis on the limits of epic mega-projects echoes Kenneth Pomeranz’s comments in a recent Q&A at The China Beat.