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US drought: how it could impact food, water needs around the world

The effects of the widespread US drought could range from higher utility prices and industry costs in the developed world to population displacements and political unrest in less developed regions.

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“There is a gap in how states are dealing with water supply issues, and they are all learning in real-time how to deal with them,” he says, pointing to such anecdotes as a Texas town that connected a fire truck pumping machine to a fire hydrant to supply field and drinking water.

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The six-year Dust Bowl in the 1930s that hit the corn belt hard led to important changes, says Richard Sutch, emeritus professor of economics at the University of California, Riverside.

“The experience revealed an advantage of the newly-introduced hybrid corn varieties,” he says via e-mail, namely their drought tolerance. “Before this, hybrid corn was not selling well. Afterward adoption rates soared. Today over 95 percent of the corn planted in the US is a hybrid variety.”

But while technology has helped fight food shortages, tripling per acre productivity in just a century, experts warn much more needs to be done to mitigate the impact of drought. The United States needs to come to terms with the changing terrain of water, “and fast,” says Christiana Peppard, assistant professor of theology and science at Fordham University in New York.

Not just because, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remarked on World Water Day 2012, “water is integral for well-being and can even pose a national security threat,” she notes via email, but because facing drought as "the new normal" means that the nation will have to rethink the way it conducts – and incentivizes – its agriculture.

It's not just the corn crops that might fail this year, she points out. The Ogallala Aquifer, which undergirds much of the corn belt of the United States and extends from Nebraska into Texas, has long been a primary source of water for large-scale agriculture.

“We've fed many, and offloaded many petrochemicals downstream. And where has that water for agriculture come from? It has often come from the Ogallala Aquifer, a source of groundwater that is non-renewable on any humanly meaningful time scale,” she notes.

Perhaps one outcome of this drought will be that we learn that the deep, non-renewable water in aquifers is what is keeping our agricultural fields saturated. But that water will run out.

“It's time to think wisely about where our water comes from, who puts what into it, where it goes, and who is responsible for it,” she says, "Fresh water is the most significant political, economic, and ethical problem that the United States and the world will face in the 21st century.”

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