Petroleum experts are verging on panic over the disappearance of cheap fossil fuel, but the end of unlimited cheap water will be swifter and much more traumatic.
That's the undiluted logic of a poorly reported Stockholm International Water Institute conference attended by 1,200 in Sweden last month for World Water Week, August 10 to 16. Within 25 years, there won't be enough water to grow food for the earth's expected population of 8.4 billion, says the conference's Blue Paper.
Humans need to change their water more often than cars need to change their oil. More important, because the plants and animals that humans eat every day are heavy water guzzlers, often a thousand times heavier drinkers than people, eating what is called "virtual" or "embedded" water is an even more critical issue than drinking it.
Running out of water makes running out of oil and gas an anti-climax that few will be around to notice.
So why are the experts' three-alarm drought warnings coming so late in the day? Probably because the worlds of food and water experts are much further apart than food and water are in the real world, where they are intertwined. Water is a resource managed by the engineering fraternity - dam builders, irrigators, pumpers and pipe-layers - pretty much to a man.
The majority of the world's farmers, by contrast, are women, as are almost all the world's food preparers and servers. The two groups rarely meet at academic or professional gatherings or during lobbying of politicians.
"If I could figure out a way to deliver oatmeal by pipe, I could get engineers and male professionals more interested in food," said a female engineer who first explained this gender gap to me.
Governments give no indication of merging these realities. There are no ministries or departments of food and water, for instance. Nor is there much of a link in the policy wonk or NGO world, where water activists deal mostly with the privatization of drinking water, not the monopolization of food supplies by producers living off the fat and wet of the land.
The H2O experts' lack of intimacy with food is also reflected in the shortcomings of proposals coming out of the Swedish conference proceedings, which reflect conventional engineering assumptions.
Delegates agreed that the world needs to drastically increase food productivity by something in the range of 40 per cent, revamping how we use water to get "more crop for the drop." In a nation of hosers like Canada, this might seem like a lead pipe cinch. For starters, apply water at night or use hoses that drip instead of spray, avoiding losses to wind and evaporation.
But on a world scale, increases in productivity are an iffy proposition, the Blue Paper argues. As much as 40 per cent of the world's soils have been degraded by bad farming practices, the document says, and can't support increased yields without lots of inputs in the form of water and fertilizers.
For some reason, this report fails to mention the premier area of the world where increases in productivity can't do more than delay the time of reckoning by a decade or two. One of the world's major breadbaskets, the high plains of the U.S., from Texas through Kansas to South Dakota, supports industrial-style agriculture thanks only to the massive Ogallala underground aquifer. But according to Marq de Villiers's comprehensive study, Water, this aquifer will run dry, probably inside of 20 years.
One ray of hope is urban agriculture, expected in some quarters to account for a third of world food production over the next 30 years. Small-scale and humble, it can be located in overlooked or abandoned areas. For instance, about half of Buffalo or Chicago and about 400 acres in Toronto are eligible, not counting flat roofs.
Kitchen scraps can feed chickens and pigs, which convert scraps to protein as well as manure one step from high-grade fertilizer. Rain, melted snow and grey water (the stuff discharged from sinks, dishwashers and showers along with soap residue that is taken up as fertilizer) can supply urban crops with moisture.
Perhaps because such options seem so humble and so under-engineered, they receive little attention from the Water Institute experts.
The report's second strategic course of action is to encourage countries blessed with plenty of water to export water-dense food, including meat, fruit and vegetables, to about 48 countries that lack adequate access to water. This is far from what's happening today in the anarchic world of free-trade agriculture.
Australia, a country facing severe water shortages, is a major exporter of water-dense crops, for example, while Canada, soaking rich in water, imports many water-dense fruits and vegetables. The authors hold out little hope that this pattern will change, since free trade and World Bank rules encourage farmers in poor and water-insecure countries to export water-dense exotic flowers and fruits that require hot weather and cheap labour.
Thus, areas of India are drilling a kilometre underground to access water for exports of rice, sugar cane and bananas, and will soon become deserts. Water levels are dropping at catastrophic rates in India, northern China, Pakistan and Vietnam.
The Water Institute document calls on citizens of relatively affluent Europe and North America to cut back severely the amount of meat they consume. Livestock animals drink a fair amount of water, but, just like humans, they consume the overwhelming bulk of their water "embedded" in food, mostly the water used to nourish grains and soybeans.
A person who eats the standard American equivalent of one medium-sized steak's worth of meat per day is indirectly consuming 5,000 litres of water a day, and that's on top of the 4 litres used for drinking water and 50 litres for house and personal cleaning that government conservation promoters like to tell us to focus our conservation efforts on. By contrast, a person who eats a balanced diet of grains, veggies and fruit and enjoys a modest serving of meat as an occasional treat, consumes about 3,287 litres of embedded or "virtual" water.
This is aside from the fact that water used for livestock is degraded when it's returned to the environment laced with manure and hormones.
The report's authors seem unaware of organic strategies for raising livestock, which rely on feeding animals weeds and grasses that humans can't digest. This method requires little in the way of embedded water diversions, though admittedly it can't provide meat in the quantities or at the price of industrial-style production.
Aside from the shortcomings in the Water Institute's report, there's no watering down its significance.