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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

Global: Water, China, Chile

Most of the world is covered by water, but only three percent is available for use as fresh water. An average one liter of water is required to produce a calorie of food, so obtaining 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day requires the 2,500 to 3,000 liters of water a day. A growing population increases the need for fresh water.

About 70 percent of the world's developed or usable water irrigates crops. Improved efficiency, more crop per drop, would stretch available water supplies.

China. China will increase spending on agricultural production by 20 percent in 2009. The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences projected a reduction in crop yields of 14 percent to 23 percent by 2050 due to water shortages and global warming. Northern China, which accounts for 58 percent of China's food production, is experiencing the worst drought in 50 years.

During the spring and summer of 2008, 22 Chinese dairy companies sold products contaminated with an industrial chemical, melamine, which can cause kidney failure or kidney stones. Over 53,000 babies were sickened by melamine-laced infant formula, four died, and there was an international recall of Chinese-made dairy products. Company officials and government regulators were fired when it became clear they cooperated in a cover up.

Government officials discouraged the parents of babies who died from suing the dairy companies. The Chinese legal system strongly discourages class action suits, and local officials often pressure parents to drop individual suits. As with parents who threatened to sue over schools that collapsed and killed their children during the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, the preferred method of dealing with problems is to have local officials provide compensation to those who agree not to sue. Critics note that using taxpayer funds to compensate victims does not punish private companies for their mistakes.

The New York Times on October 15, 2008 described the system of debt peonage that keeps Tajik cotton farmers indebted to associates of the president. Land received from collective farms carried debt, and monopoly suppliers of inputs for cotton production to ensure high prices, while a monopoly buyer pays low prices. Farmers are pressured to plant at least 80 percent of their land in cotton.

Chile. Chile's $2 billion a year farmed salmon industry is the second-largest exporter and major supplier to the US. In 2008, infectious salmon anemia (ISA) began killing many of the salmon destined for export, leading to layoffs of workers and questions about the viability of intensive fish-farming in originally pristine environments. Chile's salmon production in 2009 is expected to fall by a third from 2008 levels.

Sernapesca, Chile's national fishing service, began stepping up its inspections of salmon farms, and the government changed rules to require salmon farms to move salmon pens between production cycles to allow marine environments to recover. Marine Harvest, a Norwegian company that is the world's biggest producer of farm-raised salmon, often put underwater pens of salmon next to each other, and used chemicals and medications not approved for use in the United States and Europe to minimize ISA.

Global Warming. Evidence of long-term climate change due to rising levels of carbon dioxide continues to accumulate. A January 2009 report concluded that carbon dioxide will remain near peak levels in the atmosphere far longer than other greenhouse gases, which dissipate relatively quickly.

Carbon concentrations in the atmosphere today are at 385 parts per million. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set a goal of stabilizing them at 450 ppm, but current projections put the world on track to hit 550 ppm by 2035. The January 2009 report predicted that at 600ppm, several regions of the world face major droughts as bad or worse than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The world's rain forests are carbon sinks, absorbing much of the emissions that human activity sends into the atmosphere and sustaining a rich array of flora and fauna. It is estimated that 20 percent of the world's carbon emissions come from the destruction of rain forests.

Brazil, which is considered a world leader in reducing deforestation, aims to reduce deforestation by 70 percent over the next decade by protecting 300,000 square miles of territory from development in 300 areas. However, less than a third of the protected areas are staffed, which is one reason up to 5,000 square miles of the Amazon are deforested every year. About 20 percent of greenhouse gases come from deforestation of rain forest, making Brazil among the world's top four emitters.

Many of those living in federally protected areas have established small farms and logging operations; they resist efforts to make them leave without compensation.

Jonathan Watts, "China to plough extra 20% into agricultural production amid fears that climate change will spark food crisis," The Guardian, March 5, 2009.


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