3 Giant Dams Destabilizing the World Food Supply: Introduction

Three Giant Dams Destabilizing the World Food Supply.

3 Gorges Dam, Yangtze River: China, Glen Canyon Dam: Colorado River: US, Grand Renaissance Dam: Blue Nile River: Ethiopia.

More than 70 percent of humanity’s fresh water goes to agriculture. And so, as humanity outruns it’s water supply the response has been to build ever larger water projects for agriculture and ever more complex distribution corridors to transport that agriculture thousands of miles from field to table. Turns out giant dams at the heart of the system cause a whole lot of problems and have a far shorter life-expectancy than people were led to believe. This series is about three of those dams whose days are numbered. If you need a rationale for bulking up your pantry supplies, read on.

Part 1 of 4

March, 2022.
Riding our only home on this beautiful, blue marble; humanity has crossed the threshold into global food shortage. By the end of this decade-by 2030-tens of millions of people will die from famine, and from the wars and disease that cruise alongside famine like pilot fish. In addition to the dead, hundreds of millions of humans will suffer lifelong effects of malnutrition: stunted growth, lower IQ’s, emotional and physical traumas. Four countries are in famine right now, today.

We Americans—and I’m mostly speaking to Americans because you’re my people and this country has been good to me—used to look at famine in other parts of the world and say, ‘That’s too bad.’ then go about our day. But things have changed. Where most of the world’s human population, including us, used to be rural; therefore capable of growing, hunting, fishing, and preserving food, which provided a buffer in hard times, now the world’s human populations are increasingly urban, sedentary, nutritionally incompetent, and wholly incapable of feeding themselves as grocery stores and fast food joints empty out.

Back in the day starvation was regional. What happened in one part of the world had minimal impact on the rest. Now, like it or not, we’re part of a global food growing and distribution system which is mostly controlled by wealthy speculators who will sell food to the highest bidder. This pits wealthy countries with strong economies against countries where most citizens might make a dollar a day. It also pits poor countries against other poor countries. It also pits rich against poor within countries. This is where we are: with food prices going up in every country—including America—at least part of every population is buying less food-and especially buying less nutritious food-because of cost and shortages.

Being part of global food distribution schemes makes regular people vulnerable to world events that they have nothing to do with and no control over, like Covid, Global Warming, rising oil prices, livestock pandemics like the one that killed half the pigs in China in 2019, or war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s not any one of those things, it’s combinations of those things destabilizing a global system that barely holds its own even without those things. Writing for the Middle East Institute, Dr. Michal Tanchum provides a fine example how the Maghreb’s over-dependence on grain producers thousands of miles away was threatening Western North African economies: Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia months before Russia invaded Ukraine. After the Russian invasion, Dr. Tanchum wrote a follow-up article on the implications of curtailed wheat supplies for Egypt. (links below).

And it’s happening fast
Global average price for cereals increased more than 27 percent between September 2020 and September 2021 due to crop damage caused by weather in the United States, Canada, Russia, and the Black Sea Region. Here in America, our 2022 wheat reserves are predicted to be the lowest since 2008. Professor Tanchum notes that during 2021 soft wheat spiked 57% in four months (July-November) on the Chicago Board of Trade when soft wheat went to $271 per ton. By March 03, 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (those two countries export 30 percent of the world grain supply) soft wheat had shot up to $389 per ton.

As my favorite historian, Will Durant pointed out in the 1930’s, “At the end of the day, civilization depends upon the food supply.” Globalized food markets make civilization more vulnerable not less. To control fresh water supplies for irrigation needed to grow food for their people, as well as providing electricity and drinking water, modern engineers around the world have built dams that equal or surpass the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, if not in beauty, at least in mass, in scale, and in audacity in the face of the physical laws of nature. This little series looks at three of those spectacular dams, on three different continents, which are impacting the global food supply today, and which, as they decline, or if any one of them were to fail, will throw the entire world food supply into chaos.

Americans are getting the message

A couple words before we look at the dams. Survival experts: whether their forte’ be wilderness, urban, or survival at sea, say the first thing you need in a survival situation is ‘Recognition’.

In America, even as our politicians and media tarp over how serious is the trouble brewing, and even as they avoid broadcasting how little they have put by in response, even as they fill the airwaves with endless, mind numbing diversions about race, sex, scandals, and pandering to the pathologically wealthy, you can see that a lot of regular people are getting the message through some sort of social osmosis. It’s a marvelous recognition to see computer videos about growing food, canning, pickling, fermenting, dehydrating, root cellars; anything with ‘off the grid’ or ‘homestead’ in the title, getting a hundred thousand views.

This bottom up movement speaks to a deep level understanding that we’re not storing food for some contingency that may or may not happen in the future. We’re doing it for what’s happening today.
Since not enough of us are storing food for what’s coming, I’d like to add something to this movement that I see as key. Something about dams so big and heavy they cause earth quakes and landslides, and threaten the food supply of billions. Before we go there, let me say a few words to those of you who pretend big technology will bail us out of what big technology has got us into. You people are dreaming.

Forget big technology: Especially Middle East technology

When you try to hold a conversation about the world food supply, you can expect someone at the table to gargle up that we should learn from the Middle East where they solve their water shortage problems with technologies like sea water desalination plants and drip irrigation for agriculture.

Reject that friends. People who spout that nonsense are deluded by Middle East propaganda promoted by countries on their way out. The biggest desalination plants in the world are in Saudi Arabia. They are expensive energy hogs in a country only able to afford them because, for the moment, Saudis are sitting on vast petroleum supplies. Desalination plants require constant maintenance, are an environmental train wreck, are easy targets for an enemy, and they don’t provide enough water for agriculture to feed countries that build them. That’s why the Saudis have bought up large tracts of land in America’s drought-stressed West to raise crops. Yes, that’s right. Next summer when you hear it’s 120 degrees in Phoenix and they’re running out of water, bear in mind that billions of tons of water from the Colorado Basin are going over to Saudi Arabia in the form of crops like alfalfa to feed livestock. The Saudis banned raising alfalfa in their own country because it’s too water intensive a crop. Instead they use Colorado River water, both from acreage they’ve bought and what they buy from farmers in California.

It’s not just the Saudis. When you hear, ‘Israel doesn’t have water problems. We solve them with technology.’ (Netanyahu actually said that to California governor Jerry Brown), you might point out that Israel is a tiny country, smaller than Vermont, with less than 10 million people, that can’t feed itself. Never has. Never will. To feed itself, Israel would have to quintuple its fresh water supply. Which it can’t. The reality is, Israel’s also an environmental disaster at every level, especially agriculure, that imports virtually all its grains and most other foods from eight countries that are thousands of kilometers away. Australia and Argentina for two. And the US. Two of the others are the Ukraine and Russia which, as of February, 2022, are at war with each other. There are lots of things we can do to prepare for what this decade will bring but none of them are coming out of the Middle East.

11.09.2021 The Fragile State of Food Security in the Maghreb: Implication of the 2021 Cereal Grain Crisis in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Middle East Institute.
by Professor Michal Tanchum.  https://www.mei.edu/publications/fragile-state-food-security-maghreb-implication-2021-cereal-grains-crisis-tunisia

03.03.2022 The Russia-Ukraine War Has Turned Egypt’s Food Crisis into an Existential Threat to the Economy Middle East Institute by Michael Tanchum. https://mei.edu/publications/russia-ukraine-war-has-turned-egypts-food-crisis-existential-threat-economy