Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 11, 2002
Our water must be conserved
Irrigation is the source of much of the world's major civilizations. Today, about 40 per cent of the world's food supply comes from the 17 per cent of cropland that is irrigated.
Historically, the development of irrigation along the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq created huge food surpluses, led to centralized management and freed many formerly agrarian people to perform other activities. The result: Inventions such as writing, the wheel and sailboats.
Other irrigation-based civilizations included the Babylonians, the Egyptians, one along the Indus River in Pakistan and another in the Yellow River Basin in north-central China.
The benefits of irrigation, not only for farming, but for whole societies, have been enormous. Yet, in the long run, irrigation-based societies have been failures. Irrigated land is prone to salinization and falling fertility.
Dams and canals can fall into disrepair or be destroyed by enemies or floods. Even if the irrigated land continues producing, it can become a source of war.
Today, worldwide groundwater has been seriously depleted because of irrigation. In California, two-thirds of the groundwater has been used up in the Central Valley which supplies about half of the United States' fruits and vegetables.
The State of the World 2000 report says, "Groundwater overpumping ranks among the most serious threats to the world's food supply, yet no government has made a concerted effort to control the practice."
The problem is the worst in India where there is an estimated annual water deficit of 1.4 billion cubic metres of groundwater.
The world's food supply, already distributed in a grossly unfair fashion, is in a precarious position and we may not be able to indefinitely sustain current levels of food production given current technology.
All of this is a prelude to Alberta Environment Minister Lorne Taylor's call last month for a provincial water policy that includes diversion from northern Alberta to the increasingly drought-stricken South. Currently, 71 per cent of the water used in this province is for irrigation.
Water "diversion" that amounts to pipelines bringing in water for domestic use is something that could be studied seriously as a way of helping a parched people.
But any diversion project that would involve inter-basin transfers of water would pose several environmental dangers as Premier Ralph Klein noted in dismissing Taylor's idea.
Still, a provincial water policy is a good idea. It could look at how all that water for irrigation could be used more efficiently, for example.
It could explore alternative methods, such as drip irrigation that waters the soil with a network of perforated plastic tubing installed on or near the soil's surface. In several countries, drip irrigation has been shown to cut water use by 30 to 70 per cent and increase crop yields by 20 to 90 per cent.
The focus of a provincial water policy should be on conservation, not on diversion, dam-building, the export of water, or increasing the amount of irrigated land. We ought to be looking at ways of building a sustainable economy, not at ways of dreaming up crafty means of over-consumption.
The province is holding meetings this month to help develop an Alberta water strategy. The public can provide input at these meetings, or by filling in a questionnaire available by phoning 310-4455, or online atwww.waterforlife.gov.ab.ca.
As Christian citizens, we have a duty to do what we can to ensure water resources are used for the benefit of all people and for future generations.
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