By Barbara Harwood (Ajijic’s own Pia Aitken)
Excerpted, with permission of the author, from Chapter 9 in Eileen Crist (Editor), H. Bruce Rinker (Editor), Bill McKibben (Foreword), Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis, MIT Press, 2010, pages 151-162. (Amazon Link)
Water versus Papayas
I stared for what seemed like hours at the beautiful young papaya tree of our family garden. Four years old already, it had four giant papayas ripening at the base of its leaves, and several other smaller ones draping around its core above. But it had planted itself in the wrong place—the only logical corner in our garden to put the three rainwater collection tanks above ground so they could gravity-feed our organic garden.
Despite our living 200 yards from Mexico’s largest inland body of water, Lake Chapala, we worry about water. The water table below us has dropped about 250 feet in the last five years from burgeoning development. We have an extensive rainy season each summer and fall—from four to six months long—and the rain pours off the mountains above and to the north of us and into the lake, replenishing it by several inches each season.
But there are still problems with the lake. First, it is long, wide, and very shallow. Because it is so shallow, more water evaporates from it each year than is removed by the city of Guadalajara for use as the sole water supply for its five million people. There is also tremendous waste of water as it is withdrawn. Guadalajara has such a leaky water system, experts say, that upward of 40 percent of the water it imports from the Lake Chapala drains away unused. Add to that the chemical contamination of the lake from heavy metals in industries that border its primary river source, the Lerma, and the pesticide contamination from farmers on its borders, and you have an endangered, polluted lake, unfit to serve the freshwater needs of the communities that now line its shores. As I contemplated our papaya tree, I realized that this is the same sort of water supply predicament nearly everyone on this planet is either already facing or will face within the next few years.
Water Challenges in China
On the other side of the planet from Mexico, in northwest China’s Shanxi Province, a farmer named Qiao Sanshi sits on a low wooden stool near his rainwater collection “cellar,” a tank barely below ground, patiently waiting for a visitor. He is clutching in his hand the most precious gift he can offer that person: a glass of water. Because over five thousand such cellars for collecting rain have been installed in his small Hequ County, he can provide to a guest something which most of us still take for granted. But in many parts of north China, where water tables are dropping by a meter or more every year, this is impossible. One in three people living outside cities in China have no access to safe drinking water.
Dropping water tables are also affecting China’s food supply. Its wheat harvest, grown largely in the semi-arid north, has dropped precipitously in this century. From 2002 to 2004 China went from being essentially self-sufficient in wheat to being the world’s largest importer (Brown 2005: 102). In a country where jobs created by industrial development barely stay ahead of population growth, farmers regularly lose the water battle with industry. As long as the world wheat supply can provide imports to feed the Chinese, this is viable. But with water tables falling worldwide and rivers being drained, China’s dependence on grain imports may not be sustainable over the long term. The country’s water emergency is dire. With 22 percent of the world’s population and only 6 percent of its water resources, China is among the world’s thirstiest countries. According to China’s own news organization, over 400 of China’s 699 major cities are water short and 50 of those are labeled “seriously threatened,” including Beijing, whose depleted groundwater led a Beijing wit to send relatives an email invitation to the 2008 Olympics with B.Y.O.W. at the bottom: Bring your own water.