Local Water Woes May Have Global Consequences

China's Yellow River during drought. © 2011 M. Henley/Panos

Should consumers in Africa or Latin America be worried about water scarcity in China? Maybe, according to a new IFPRI discussion paper by Nicola Cenacchi and colleagues. Water shortages in China’s Yellow River Basin could not only threaten regional food security, but also raise food prices on global markets. The basin—known as China’s breadbasket—already has one of the world’s heaviest rates of water use, and climate change is likely to exacerbate water shortages in some areas.

Cenacchi and his coauthors examined the impacts of two possible scenarios in the basin: a 30 percent reduction and a 50 percent reduction in water availability for irrigation by 2030 (these scenarios are in line with Chinese estimates of future water shortages). By 2030, cereal production could fall by as much as 17 percent. A drop in production on this scale could affect economic growth and food security in the region and would significantly elevate global cereal prices—up to 10 percent for maize, 9 percent for wheat, and 6 percent for rice. These rising prices could, in turn, reduce calorie availability in developing countries by as much as 2.2 percent. “The world is linked as never before,” says Cenacchi, “and climate change effects in key food-producing regions will be felt both locally and globally.”

According to the authors, new technologies will not be enough to avert this outcome—China will also need to enact policies to control water demand and encourage farmers to use water more efficiently.