Toxic Harvest

Damp with sweat, dust, and chaff, [the farmer] pulls a plastic hose into a water pump that is powered by a truck with a belt-drive. The moment the engines roar, the ingenious makeshift machine fills the hose with turbid water from the nearby canal where a pharmaceutical factory has just dumped its rancid effluent.

via Toxic Water: Across Much of China, Huge Harvests Irrigated with Industrial and Agricultural Runoff | Circle of Blue WaterNews.

Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue
Polluted water and trash mingle on the bank of the Yellow River in Lanzhou, China.

As farmers across China produce increasing amounts of food to feed a burgeoning middle-class surge, much of it is irrigated with polluted water.

Much of China’s water is so contaminated that it should not even be touched, yet tremendous amounts of the grains, vegetables, and fruits that are served in homes and restaurants, as well as textiles that are sold in markets, are irrigated with untreated industrial waste water.

The beef and pork desired by the middle- and upper classes consume large amounts of grain, grown with polluted water.  Rice, too, is contaminated with cadmium,

 a heavy metal that is discharged in mining and industrial sewage, according to scientists at Nanjing Agricultural University.

Nearly 15% of China’s river water is unusable for any purpose, and half the groundwater nation wide is polluted.  The worst pollution is in industrial areas in the southeast, and the drier agricultural areas in the northeast.

Half of the water pollution is actually caused by intensive farming:

fertilizers, pesticides, and livestock waste that are carried into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and underground aquifers by rainfall and snowmelt.

Photo © Adam Dean for Circle of Blue


High nutrient levels from fertilizer runoff produce mats of thick algae in a main-stem irrigation canal in Liaoning Province.

“China is developing too rapidly,” Wang told Circle of Blue. “It took Western countries 100 and more years to develop to this level — it took China 30 years. “

Although China sees the problems, addressing them is another issue entirely.  Restrictions will slow economic growth, and the central government doesn’t want that to happen.

“All the environmental problems in China are political problems,” Hu Kanping told Circle of Blue. “And water pollution is more difficult to address than air pollution. In many areas, there’s resistance from farmers and local governments to address this problem, because it will affect their irrigation; it will raise their water fees and slow local GDP growth.”

40 maps that explain food in America |

40 maps that explain food in America |

Disappearing Water

Subsidizing Protests

BBC News – Colombia troops to patrol Bogotá after protests.

Clashes broke out on Thursday afternoon after tens of thousands of people marched peacefully in support of a 10-day protest by small-scale farmers.

Colombia’s government deployed the military after protests became violent.  Small-scale subsistence farmers, along with students, teachers, and healthcare workers, have been protesting against the importation of cheap food from the EU and the US.

Because both the EU and the US subsidize agricultural production with payments to farmers and big agricultural producers, they are able to sell their products cheaper than most smallholders.  And countries with free-trade agreements have a hard time competing with the lost-cost products. So the Colombian government is negotiating with its farmers and has

promised more protection from products imported at lower prices from countries with free-trade agreements with Colombia.

It’s very hard for the small-scale farmers.

They say that free trade agreements with the European Union and the US, which have recently come into force, are flooding the market with agricultural products at prices they are unable to match.
They also complain that rising fuel and production costs have turned small-scale farming into a loss-making business.

Once they can’t make a living, they move into city slums, creating more hardship for themselves and their government.  How will this end?  Who will end up benefiting?  Probably not the poor farmers and those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

Missing Water in the West

The recession of the massive lake that straddles Nevada and Arizona is symbolic of a long-standing problem that just got a lot worse: The Colorado River’s record-low flows and the shrunken reservoirs of lakes Mead and Powell (pictured above) for the first time have triggered big cuts in the amount of water allowed to flow downstream.

via Feds Slash Colorado River Release to Historic Lows.

Nevada, Arizona, California, and Mexico depend on the Colorado River water to supply electricity to light the towns and run the air conditioners, and the water to green up the desert and grow crops.  And for the past 14 years, there is less water in the river than any time in the past 1,200 years.

Lake Powell, upstream on the river, is losing most of its water to drought.  Farther down the river, Lake Mead is being sucked dry by Las Vegas and agricultural use.  Over two year’s worth of water is “missing” – 16 million acre-feet.

The Colorado River Basin “is one of the most critical sources of water in the West,” Connor said in written comments submitted to a Senate subcommittee hearing in July. The river and its tributaries quench the thirsts of 40 million people and nearly 5.5 million acres of farmland, plus seven national wildlife refuges, four national recreation areas, and 11 national parks.

If it rains and snows in above normal amounts next year, the crisis might be delayed for a while.  Several years of above-average precipitation could help to refill the lakes.  But at this point, that appears unlikely.

By current river law, Lake Mead must deliver a certain amount of water downstream, but the lake is draining faster than its refilling. At some point, if the situation doesn’t improve, the fear is it may come to deciding this: Do we cut off water supply to Las Vegas to two million people because the reservoir has dropped too low? Or does someone else pay?

Because most of the water goes to agriculture, if the drought continues there will be hard choices.  Who will win?  Who will lose?  Will people still want to move there if water usage is restricted?  What new technologies will be developed to deal with this situation?  What are you doing to conserve our natural resources?

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