Thursday, October 26, 2006

India Water Shortages

Michael Specter's excellent New Yorker article from the October 23 issue on water shortages in India, and in the developing world generally, remind me of my own recent discussion of the topic.

Malthusian predictions of civilization's demise because of overstretching resources have long proven false. Technology is a wonderful thing. We can produce immense amounts of food for incredibly low prices. We can pack people into cities and ship food to them from outlying farms around the world.

But there is only so much water in the world and you can't make more. There is no technology that can create water. We can create more fresh water through desalinization, but this comes with intense price and environmental costs.

So we have to live with the water we have. But with severe allocation problems (Specter discusses how farmers get as more water than they can use to grow rice while people in the cities subsist on far less water than they need), pollution, and a rapidly growing population, India is already reaching the point of no return. Wells are being pumped increasingly deep, but if you go too deep, you bring saltwater and arsenic into the aquifer, destroying the entire supply forever. When even if you don't pollute the aquifer, when it's gone, it's gone. There's no more.

India is in serious trouble. They may be able to forestall some of the worst effects of this for a few decades but I continue to argue that there is no way this is a burgeoning world power. They don't have the political leadership, the societal stability, or the consistent rainfall needed to become a long-term world power.