As Global Population Grows, Water Matters More

Guests

Sandra Postel, freshwater fellow, National Geographic Society
Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation, World Wildlife Fund

Clean, fresh water is an essential element to life — not only do people and animals depend on it, but it also sustains many businesses and agriculture. The majority of the fresh water used worldwide goes to irrigation, and the need is expected to rise with the growing global population.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. Clean, fresh water is essential to life. People, animals depend on it. So do businesses and industry and agriculture.

Some parts of the world already suffer from scarcity, and as we continue to drink and wash and utilize it and eat - especially eat - reserves are dwindling. Do we have enough to feed seven billion and counting?

We want to hear today from farmers. Tell us about your water. Where do you get it? How do you use it? Do you waste it? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, AP photographer David Guttenfelder on his journey into the exclusion zone around Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. But first, feeding the planet.

With me here onstage at the Grosvenor Auditorium is Sandra Postel. She's a freshwater fellow at National Geographic Society, director of the Global Water Policy Project. Thanks very much for coming in.

SANDRA POSTEL: My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: And Sandra, immigration - irrigation has helped greatly with food production. Mesopotamia, thousands of years ago, is where we began urban society, thanks to diversion of water from rivers. It's not a fully sustainable project, though.

POSTEL: Exactly. The - irrigation's been a cornerstone of human civilization, as you say, from the very beginning. You know, if you look at the earliest civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, you know, these were the beginnings of human civilization exactly because irrigation freed up a number of people in that society to do other things than grow food, to develop mathematics and science and art and all kinds of things.

And we've learned from history that it's important not to be complacent about the sustainability of irrigation, because some of these early civilizations - the one in ancient Mesopotamia, in particular - were brought down in large part because their irrigation practices weren't sustainable.

So if we look out at the world today, we're getting about 40 percent of our food from the 18 percent of cropland that gets irrigation. So it's very, very important to our food security even today. But if you look at what's happening on the ground, where we have irrigated agriculture going on, you see a couple things happening.

We're experiencing the depletion of groundwater. Rivers are running dry. And as happened in ancient Mesopotamia, salt is building up in the soil. So there are threats there that we need to pay attention to.

CONAN: Salt building up into the soil. Even fresh water has some salt in it, and as it evaporates year after year after year after year, that salt builds up, and it's not just salt. There's other crud in there, too.

POSTEL: Exactly right. Yeah, you have this buildup of salt in the soil unless you flush the salts out on an annual basis, and that's very hard to do in a very dry climate.

CONAN: Jason Clay is also with us here at the Grosvenor Auditorium, and he's the senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Foundation. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct name of the organization is World Wildlife Fund.] Thanks very much for joining us today.

JASON CLAY: Thank you.

CONAN: And you've written about - well, specifically Africa, but the lessons there apply to this country, too. Irrigation is necessary, yet irrigation is tremendously wasteful, as well as not being necessarily sustainable.

CLAY: Today, we use about a liter of water to make each calorie of food on the planet. And we're going to have two billion more people coming along by 2050. They're going to have 2.9 times as much income per capita. They're going to consume, per capita, about twice as much food as we do today because they're going to eat more animal protein. And the question is how we're going to do all of this.

You know, it's a good-news, bad-news kind of thing. In 1900, we used 90 percent of all the water we used as people to grow food. By the year 2000, we used 70 percent. But the bad news is that we used five times as much water in total, and we simply don't have five times more water to use to grow food. So we're going to have to double-down.

We've got to figure out how to get twice as much food, twice as many calories, from each drop of water.

CONAN: And the problem being, unfortunately, we can't get more water. There's only a finite amount.

POSTEL: Exactly. There's a finite amount of water on the planet, and, you know, nature's dealt a pretty difficult hand when it comes to water, because exactly where we need to grow food is where it's sunny, but also you don't have water in those sunny places. So we don't always have the water where we need it when we need it.

So it's very, very tricky business to, you know, apply that water and deliver that water at the right times and in the right amounts. And so what you see now is in a lot of the really important food-producing regions of the world like north China, like northwest India, the breadbasket of India, the Western United States, it's in these places where we're having water shortages, and we're having difficulty sustaining the agriculture use of that water because of water shortages.

CONAN: Droughts we call them, right?

POSTEL: Well, there's two things. There's water shortages where you have this chronic overuse of water. So you have rivers running dry. You're depleting groundwater on an annual basis. And then it gets worse in times of drought, as we just saw the 10-year big dry in Australia and the droughts in China and that sort of thing. So that's on top of this longer-term trend of water shortage.

CLAY: And it's not just people that need water. Every living thing on the planet needs water. We have twelve major rivers globally that don't reach the sea anymore. It's very hard to have freshwater biodiversity when there's no water part of the earth.

CONAN: Those rivers don't reach the sea because every single drop of water in them has been taken out to use for one purpose or another. Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from farmers today: Where do you get your water? How do you use it? Do you waste it? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with James, James on the line with us from Charlotte.

JAMES: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi, James.

JAMES: Yes, on our family farm, we raise cattle. Well, where they get their water from the creek that runs through the pasture. Well, the city right down the road from us is trying to get us to quit using that water. They don't - they're trying to - they're not - it's not a very - it's turned into, like, a farm-versus-the-city thing. They want that water to not be touched because they're claiming that is part of the watershed, but at the same time, this farm has been there well over 200 years.

CONAN: Part of the watershed, it flows into a reservoir and is used for drinking water?

JAMES: It goes into a river, and I think they use that for part of their watershed.

CONAN: And they'd rather - I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, but they'd rather the cattle not mess around in it upstream?

JAMES: Correct, correct.

CONAN: Yet you've been doing this for 200 years.

JAMES: The family's - that's a family farm, been there since before we were even a country.

CONAN: And how is this going to work out, do you think?

JAMES: Well, we'll just let them drink. You know, I mean, they've got to have their water, so they've got to get it from somewhere. And (unintelligible), so it's, like, a catch-22 or rock-and-a-hard-place thing.

CONAN: I understand what you're saying. Eventually, they may be able to force you to stop that.

JAMES: Maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Okay, good luck with that.

JAMES: All right, thank you.

CONAN: And we wish you the best. Thanks very much for the phone call. But Jason Clay, that's a tension that goes on around the world as cities continue to develop and as farmers continue to practice their - in their old ways.

CLAY: Well, I think as resources become more scarce, there's going to be more competition for them, and money and who can afford to pay is actually going to be part of the issue. It will probably be the case that people in cities will be able to afford to pay more for water than farmers do, and we're already seeing now some of the water rights that exist in places like California for growing agricultural crops being sold to cities, because farmers make more money selling water than they do growing crops and selling it.

CONAN: More money selling water? That's...

CLAY: And that's probably the shape of things to come in many parts of the world, where it's drier.

CONAN: And it's interest, Sandra Postel, reading some of your work, I came across a concept - it may not be original to you - but that trade in crops, sending wheat or corn to a dry place like Saudi Arabia, is essentially trade in water.

POSTEL: That's right. Grain is the currency by which we trade water around the world. It takes about 1,000 tons of water to make one ton of grain. So the reason a country like Egypt imports more than half of its grain is not because it's short of land. It's because it's short of water.

So as it imports so much grain, it's actually importing 1,000 times that tonnage in water. So we call it virtual water. So you're trading - one of the ways we balance water budgets around the world is by trading grain.

So - and that's not been such a big issue so far. We've been able to do that with the extra grain. The problem that we're beginning to see and get worried about is that you have very large countries that used to be self-sufficient in grain, notably China, with 1.3 billion people, India with 1.2 billion people, Pakistan with nearly 200 million people, now beginning to become so water-short that they can't be food self-sufficient anymore.

And as they begin to look to the international grain market to buy more food, it's going to force prices up. And they'll be able to afford it, but what worries a lot of us is what that means for the people in South Asia and particularly sub-Saharan Africa that are hungry even today. And so that tension is going to worsen.

You've got over a billion people today who are malnourished, even at food prices and availability today.

CONAN: Yet, Jason Clay, the situation 50 years ago, we were on the edge of that situation, yet technology in form of the green revolution, solved that problem - or so we thought.

CLAY: So we put together a package that included seeds and genetics, water, fertilizers and pesticides and really allowed us to grow agriculture faster in some places, so that we were able to take land out of production, to grow agriculture production faster than the population grew.

But right now, we don't have any technologies available that actually are growing faster than the population is growing. And so - and it's not just population. It's consumption, too, how much we're consuming, how much animal protein we're consuming.

If you take our technologies and add them all up, we could actually do this, but we're going to have to be very smart about it and we're going to have to start working on it very quickly. Forty years down the road, just for what some people think of as the peak of population, isn't that long. The peak of consumption, we don't even know when that's going to be. That could be 100 years or 200 years.

CONAN: Are we talking about genetic engineering, here?

CLAY: Well, we certainly can't take genetics off the table. But genetic engineering isn't GMOs, and we have to be very clear about that. We can do a lot by selecting traits. We can select traits and markers for productivity, for drought tolerance, disease resistance - actually, for nutrients, too. That would be a novel concept.

We haven't done that too much yet, but I think we can begin to use 21st-century technology to do that.

CONAN: That takes time, though. GMOs can happen...

CLAY: Forty years is not long when it comes to genetics. But if we map the genomes of some of the basic crops around the planet, we can actually double or triple production within that genome. We don't have to be doing GMOs.

CONAN: We're talking with Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Foundation. He's with us here in the Grosvenor Auditorium at National Geographic, along with Sandra Postel, freshwater fellow at the National Geographic Society. We're talking, well, about water. Do we have enough to feed seven billion mouths and counting? Farmers, tell us about your water: where you get it, how you use it, do you waste it - 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the National Geographic headquarters in Washington. In Texas, the drought ravishing that state was recently declared the worst in a century. Recent lawsuits stoked debate over the use of fresh water across the Southwest United States, debates that play out all over the world as farmers use more and more water to feed a global population growing rapidly toward eight billion.

We want to hear today from farmers. Tell us about your water, where you get it, how you use it, do you waste it. 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We're going to get questions from the audience here at the Grosvenor Auditorium as well, and thanks, everybody, for coming in. We appreciate it. Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. Let's go next to - this is Gloria(ph), Gloria with us from the Hood River in Oregon.

GLORIA: Yes, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GLORIA: Well, I have a small farm in the foothills of Mount Hood, and my water comes from the west fork of the Hood River. And you know, that's where I get my water. How do I use it? I grow blueberries and I grow pears. Now, one of the issues that you haven't talked about is pollution.

You know, there is effort here to be more careful about what gets into the water, and there are agencies which test it so that we can see if there are chemicals that are getting into it. But one of the other issues that you didn't speak to, and you have talked about how in dry areas even rain builds up salts in soils, but how about fertilization?

I've found that fertilization also builds up salt in the soil, and that's one of the big problems in the - you know, the salad basket of California. So, you know, we can do a lot better. And do I waste water? Of course I waste water. But, you know, there are ways that you - you know, there's new technology. You can put in a new irrigation system and all of that stuff.

But if you're growing trees that have been there for, you know, 30 to 60 years, you know, and you want to change the irrigation system to drip, well, that might not be such a great idea. You know, yes, we can use 21st century technology to identify better ways to do stuff, but we need to support people like Wes Jackson(ph), who's a geneticist who's trying to develop, you know, a grain which is perennial.

We need to support people like Charles Fishman, who wrote "The Big Thirst," and, you know, that's an eye-opener. And he posits that the reason we waste so much water in this United States is because we don't pay attention to it. It comes - you know, you turn on the tap, and it comes out. We flush more water down our toilet than, you know, Great Britain and Canada use, total, you know.

CONAN: Well, Sandra Postel, you've described the United States as being fairly rich in water resources. But she was describing irrigation systems. A lot of farmers simply flood their fields or run water down the funnels between the furrows, the areas between the furrows. She was talking about drip irrigation. That's a relatively newer system and one that is much more - well, it saves a lot of water.

POSTEL: It does. We're water-rich as a nation, but we're very water-stressed in the western part of the country, and that's where we have most of our irrigation happening. And you know, the silver lining in all this is that there's so much we can do. As the caller pointed out, there's a waste of water going on, but that's because we haven't really given farmers the incentives they need to really use the most modern and up-to-date technology.

And we haven't provided that opportunity the way we can. So drip irrigation is just one example of - it's the most efficient way we know of to deliver water directly to plants. You're delivering the water directly to the roots of the plant in the amounts of water that the plant needs and not, you know, just spreading the water on the field where it's subject to evaporation and running off and adding to the pollution that Gloria talked about.

And so I think that's one technology that's underused. In this country we've got about seven, eight percent of - or about seven or eight percent of our irrigated land under drip irrigation. Countries like Israel, Jordan that are growing more fruits and vegetables, up over half. So there's a lot that we can do to improve that efficiency.

But again, farmers are good businesspeople. You know, they're making decisions as to how to use their water, what crops to grow, based on the incentives and the prices that - just like any good business person would - the incentives that confront them.

So there really are challenges to how do we change the incentives to promote, you know, the better use of efficiency technology where and how we grow crops.

CONAN: And Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund, what about that idea, the image - we turn on a tap, it's there. Of course we use it, and of course we waste it because we don't really think about it.

CLAY: Well, I think if we - when resources become more scarce, we're going to start paying more for them. It's going to be either - water's going to be charged, or the taxes to use it or the competition between users are going to change. So we're going to have to figure out how to use water more efficiently.

But it's not just water, it's soil. It's other inputs. It's land itself. I think there are lots of ways that we can increase efficiency but only if we start to manage and measure it. We've got hundreds of certification programs in the U.S. that look at sustainability of food production. None of them measure productivity, and very few of them actually even measure water at all.

So as water becomes more scarce, we're going to have to start doing that.

CONAN: Let's go to a question here in the auditorium.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What role can native planting, especially native edible planting, play in bolstering the food supply while maintaining or managing our water?

CONAN: Native plants - in other words the local plants that have always been here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Or anywhere.

CONAN: Or anywhere, okay. Can you help us out with that, Jason?

CLAY: Well, one of the projects that we've been involved with is in Africa, where we're trying to identify what the orphan crops are, the kind of neglected crops, the crops that haven't benefitted from modern plant breeding, and what we could do if we map those genomes and begin to select for traits in years rather than decades or centuries so that we could take tree crops and then double or triple or quadruple production.

We're talking about things like cassava, cocoa yams, peanuts, palm oil, et cetera, all native to Africa and used by those people. And the question is then how do we double-up or triple-up production. We think there's a lot of room to be made for genetics.

But it's not just about genetics. It's also about how to grow those crops better. We find that anywhere in the world, the best farmers are 100 percent - or excuse me, 100 times more productive than the worst farmers. So how do they do it? What are the practices they use? We need to begin to identify that, document it and spread that around.

We have 500 million, 800 million cell phones in Africa? Why aren't we using that to spread information like this, SMS texting and messaging, and replace the old extension agent that's 10, 20, 30 years out of date by the time they're 40 or 50 or 60 years old and use cell phones to get immediate information to people.

CONAN: Yet - I assume the extension service in a lot of places you're talking about in Africa is your father and his brother and maybe your grandfather.

CLAY: In the sense that most governments can't afford to pay for extension agents anymore, yes, that's true. But learning about modern techniques from your grandparents isn't exactly the most straightforward way to go forward.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Jim, Jim with us from Kansas City.

JIM: Yes.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JIM: I talked to an ag agent about - in 2000, (unintelligible) Texas before I moved up here. And he said by 2020 we would lose the grain belt because the dust bowl is going to come back and that they had already made contracts with Canada to (unintelligible) the grain they were going to have to buy because their genetic expert said they could not possibly breed a viable crop in just 20 years.

CONAN: Couldn't - your phone is betraying you, but I think you were talking about the dust bowl returning, and it's been looking like that in parts of Kansas and much of Texas. And Sandra...

JIM: (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: I'm sorry, really having a hard time hearing you, but we're going to let you go, but we'll pick up your question with Sandra Postel of the National Geographic Society; he's a freshwater fellow here, and that is this idea that, well, obviously climate change is having a tremendous impact in places like Texas, in places like Australia, in places like China and Russia.

POSTEL: Exactly. It's very troubling from a water perspective because what the scientists are saying now is that we're sort of outside. We've moved outside the normal boundaries of variability. So the droughts are likely to get worse, and the floods are likely to get worse, and we've been seeing this. Right, we've seen, you know, these biblical scale floods in Pakistan, last year 20 percent of the country.

We saw a heat wave in Russia that, you know, produced temperatures in Moscow that they hadn't seen in generations, and it cut their wheat crop by 40 percent.

So we're seeing these extremes, and that's going to spike food prices. We saw in 2008, and again earlier this year, in February 2011, a spiking of food prices like we hadn't seen. And what that does is it creates more hunger. We saw at least another 150 million poor people go hungry, from about 850 million to up over a billion, because of that spiking of food prices.

And also, it also changes the dynamics of the whole food system. And so, you know, this is the kind of thing on top of the demand - the increase in demand for food, again, as more and more countries and people want to consume meat the way we do. You know, we've had a tripling of world population, but a six-fold increase in our meat consumption since 1950. And that trend in demand is happening even as climate change is making the water system much more difficult.

CONAN: Jason Clay?

CLAY: The variability isn't just about the productivity either. If you have one year where you have too much water and your crop fails and the next year, you have too little water and your crop fails, what bank is going to lend you money to plant the third crop? I mean, we haven't even begun to come to terms with what some of the climate change issues mean for finance and other sectors.

CONAN: Here's an email from Jerry(ph): We have a small farm 25 miles north of Denver. One of the cities is offering us to buy our water for 10 times what it was previously worth. In the process, they also force farms into drying up, removing productive farmland from use. So it's six to one and half a dozen in the other, taking away from one hand and giving to the other. Let's get a question from the audience here in Washington.

JOEL BREZOIR: Yes, I'm Joel Brezoir(ph). I was wondering, where does desalination fit into the equation of water usage and water need, et cetera, for the future?

CONAN: Sandra Postel, desalination, pumping water out of the ocean, taking the salt out and the other stuff. But it's energy intensive, no?

POSTEL: It is very energy intensive. It's, you know, we have this image of the vast oceans. If we could just take the salt out, we would have no water problems. And it's a temptation to think that way. The tricky thing is it takes a lot of energy to remove salt from water. Whether you distill it and leave the freshwater behind or you push it through a membrane, which is the more modern way of doing it, it takes a lot of energy. And so desalination is very much a growth industry right now. It's in island countries and desert countries and cities. They're relying a lot on desal(ph) for their drinking water.

But it's way too expensive to desalt ocean water to grow food. Food prices would just go through the roof. And the other thing about desalination is because it's energy intensive and it's using usually fossil fuels to run the plant, you're contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to create water. And so you're making those water shortage problems all that much worse. And I think this is part of the issue.

Now we're dealing now with this nexus of water, food, energy and climate problems, and we have to think about solutions that tackle all those at the same time, you know, and not try to solve one problem while making another one worse. That's going to just create a vicious cycle.

CONAN: Jason Clay, is this an area where technology can help us out?

CLAY: Well, I think so. I mean, if you imagine, could we actually harness the way wave actions move so that the waves themselves desalinate water, so that we're not using fossil fuels, we're using other sources. I mean, we - I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball any more than any of the rest of you about where we're going to get our water. But rather than hold out for some technology, I would say let's start being more efficient.

We waste a lot of water. More importantly, a hidden thing is that we waste a lot of food. A third of all the calories we produce on this planet are never eaten by people. They're actually wasted. In developing countries, it's post-harvest losses. We don't have elevators. We don't have granaries. We don't have transportation systems. We don't have refrigeration. In our developed countries, it's more - we have portions that are out of control. We have restaurants that throw away food. We look in our refrigerators and throw away food every week.

If we could eliminate food waste, we'd have to produce have as much food as we do by 2050. Now, why is that important? Because between now and 2050, we have to produce as much food as we have in the last 8,000 years. That's the challenge before us today. We can't afford to take waste off the table, genetics off the table, technology off the table. None of them are going to get us there by itself. All of them combined, if we will away at them, we can get there.

CONAN: Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund. Sandra Postel is also with us, freshwater fellow at the National Geographic Society, director of the Global Water Policy Project. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And there's another question here in the Grosvenor Auditorium.

KENNETH ANUM: MY name is Kenneth Anum(ph). I'm sitting here, listening to this, and I'm wondering about Africa. What are we going to do about Africa? Today, there are places in Africa whereby it's dry, and there's water scarcity. And as water scarcity increases, what's going to happen to these places that are already dry?

CONAN: Well, Jason Clay, you brought a monograph. You've suggested eight ideas. We're not going to have time to go into them all, but he's correctly identified the problem, no?

CLAY: Absolutely. I was just in Durban last week at the climate talks, and somebody pointed out that the last eight years in Africa had been hardest or, excuse me, the hottest in record. So we've had records for 150 years. The last eight years have been the top eight in terms of heat. That's going to make it very hard to produce food. We're going to have to look for varieties that require less water, that produce more calories per water that we use. We need to begin to start looking at different kinds of metrics.

If you talk to farmers, they all talk about how many hectares or how many acres that they're farming, not how many calories they're producing per liter of water, how many calories they're producing per hour of labor. Those are kinds of things that we need to begin to look at. On a finite planet, we've got to manage our resources better, and that means we've got to start counting and measuring and managing.

CONAN: One of the interesting pieces in your story was an idea called treadle pumps. The mechanical pumps cost $350, the most inexpensive ones. That's huge amount of money for farmers in that part of the world. Instead, treadle pumps were - works pretty much like a StairMaster, and you can pump water up from an aquifer.

CLAY: So the question then becomes how many calories does it take to pump the water to produce how many calories? You need to do the math. We live on a finite planet. We got to always do the math.

POSTEL: And one of the - Kenneth makes a really good point that one of the things Africa doesn't have that much of the rest of the world does have is irrigation. So if you look at sub-Saharan Africa, only 4 percent of the crop land is irrigated. And so when those dry times come, there's no ability to use river water or groundwater to irrigate a crop.

And so one of the ideas is to try to invest more in that affordable small-scale irrigation like the treadle pumps, which cost a bit more in Africa, and the idea would not be to treadle forever, but it's an entry point, you know? It gets you out of poverty because you can suddenly be more food self-sufficient, not have those terrible years when the drought hits, and begin to take some crops to market.

In Bangladesh, where this idea first kicked off, the treadle pump, 1.2 million of those were sold, and a lot of farm families found that to be their ticket out of poverty and toward that next level of income where they could then buy a different kind of pump, where they don't have to work quite so hard. But it's an excellent point.

CONAN: We're talking about the shortage of water in many parts of the world and how we're going to use it to feed seven billion and counting. A couple of more questions when we come back.

We're also going to be visiting scenes from Japan's nuclear disaster. The area around the Fukushima plant is off-limits to the news media. We'll talk with a photographer about how he got in, who and what he saw there. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: We'll get to the exclusion zone outside of Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in just a moment, but we wanted to continue our conversation with Sandra Postel, a freshwater fellow at the National Geographic Society, and Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Found.

Let's get a caller on the line. This is Cyprus,(ph) Cyprus with us from Fredericksburg in Texas.

CYPRUS: Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi.

CYPRUS: I'm a - hi. I'm a farmer in Central Texas, one of the drought-stricken and fire-stricken areas, and we grow peaches and a variety of just different vegetables and crops. We actually grow sustainably, so we use drip irrigation. We utilize cover cropping, soil conservation, plant selection and a variety of other sustainable practices to try to conserve our water and build our soil.

Our water source that we use is we have our own private wells that we use and we monitor. I suppose our most troubling issue at this point and question for your experts and audience is on the concern of water privatization versus not. In our case as farmers, we have our own private water, but we are under extreme pressure from our water districts to start putting meters on our own private wells to start charging us and regulating what we use out of our own private water.

In some water districts around Texas, they've already started to do this, where they've started metering private wells. I think some other states in the United States have done the same. Some years ago, there was a city or a town somewhere in South America that privatized their public - or their water, and I think successfully the public opened it back up because it made water too expensive and inaccessible to a lot of the poor people there.

So I guess that's my big concern, is for even those of us that are trying to do our best to use all the technology and best practices, we're still facing possible issues with our private water being restricted.

CONAN: Jason Clay, this is going to be an issue in places other than Texas. Obviously Fredericksburg is, well, the center of the storm, as she mentioned. It's been drought-stricken and fire-hit as well, but this kind of issue, is it public water? Is it private water? Who owns it? Who has access to it? That's the history of the Southwest United States.

CLAY: Well, it's a good question. I mean, water moves, and the wells may be on a property, but the aquifers underneath are flowing along states, not just even counties or farms. And so who owns that water? Just because you have a well, do you have unlimited access, et cetera? Are these public goods or are they private goods?

This is what, I think, water scarcity is going to trigger as a whole debate around this. How do we manage this - the scarce resource when we have multiple entrance through various wells to tap it? And how would we use it? Would we use it for growing peaches? Would we use it for growing calories? Would we use it for growing other things? I mean, those are decisions that we - we're going to have to start managing them a little better and not just have ad hoc decisions, I think.

CONAN: But you can understand, Sandra Postel, the concerns of a farmer. Wait a minute, we're here. The water is here. They never charged us for it before. It's our water.

POSTEL: Yeah. Hats off to the caller for being so sustainable in the way, you know, she and her farmers are - her farm is producing, you know, peaches and the other crops because, in Texas, you have a strong sort of disincentive to be that efficient and that sustainable because they have in Texas what's called the rule of capture, which means that if you own land and you drill a well, like they have done, you can pump as much water from beneath your land as you want to.

And so there's not a strong - there's a long history there of if you own the land, you own the water and you can pump as much as you want. And as Jason just said, exactly right, it's a common pool under there. So if - as more and more people pump, as you add more straws to that single source of water, it's going to get sucked out faster and faster. And what's the concern now is if you look around the world that all the places where that's happening, so many wells, so many straws in that common pool of groundwater beneath the earth, we're producing something like 10 percent of our food today by over-pumping ground water.

So that's kind of a bubble in the food economy from that over-pumping. We're propping it up with the unsustainable use of water. And like we've learned from the housing bubble, the dot-com bubble, they pop. And we're beginning to see in parts of India, for example, where a lot of these over-pumping has happened, that wells are beginning to run dry or farmers can't afford to keep pumping. And so, that land comes out of production or it goes back to dryland farming, which is less productive.

So this is a concern globally. We're seeing it locally in the United States here and there, the central valley of California, our fruit and vegetable basket, tremendous over-pumping. But this is a problem globally for the global food economy. It manifests locally, but it's going to translate into more pressure on the food system.

CONAN: Well, thank you, both, very much for your time today. We appreciate your dropping by and speaking with us. You just heard Sandra Postel, a freshwater fellow at the National Geographic Society. Our thanks as well to Jason Clay, senior vice president of market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund. Appreciate your time.

CLAY: Thank you.

POSTEL: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: In just a moment, we'll be talking to David Guttenfelder of the Associated Press about the exclusions zone around Japan's stricken nuclear power plant. Stay with us.

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Correction Dec. 14, 2011

We previously misidentified the World Wildlife Fund as the World Wildlife Foundation.

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