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1999 In Review: Likely Shortages A Challenge To Policy-Makers

In the last feature in a three-part series on the challenges facing humankind at the dawn of the new century and millennium, RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge asks the question: Can the world feed itself, in view of the continued rapid rise in human populations? And can it meet its water and energy needs?

London, 30 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The 21st century poses daunting challenges to policy-makers. The most pressing problems will include the population explosion, with the resulting demands on food supplies, rapid urbanization, water shortages and dwindling energy resources.

A study by Pierre-Alain Schieb, of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's International Futures Program, says the world's agro-food sector does appear to have the ability to cope with the unprecedented increase expected in food demand. At least, for the next 30 years or so.

Even today, 830 million people around the world, particularly in Africa and Asia, do not have enough to eat. But this is a problem not so much of inherent food shortages, but of underdevelopment of resources.

The one major change that will affect everyone within the next century is a virtual doubling of the world's population. This will mean that food output will have to double by 2025, especially, as seems likely, if consumption per head rises in poorer countries, where almost 95 per of population growth will occur.

Can the world meet the demand? Many food economists are confident that by 2010 or 2020 food supply will be growing faster than demand. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization says annual growth in food output may be almost two per cent per year.

Paradoxically, this does not mean an end to hunger. The OECD study says that because of continuing imbalances in production, malnutrition will persist in the developing world even as obesity problems become more serious in the developed world.

The study projects that in non-OECD countries, growth in agricultural output will not be enough to ensure food self-sufficiency. It says that farmers need to increase output and take advantage of new technologies to increase yields.

But the rapid movement of people to cities from the countryside means that the amount of land being farmed in the world could shrink by 15 percent over the next quarter century. If this happens, the increase in crop yields from the remaining farm areas will have to be very significant.

In addition, the guardedly optimistic forecasts of food economists could be upset by natural calamities such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and tidal waves. And the most serious problem will be water shortages. One OECD study says that much of the world's population may be living under conditions of "low" or "catastrophically low" water supplies by 2025.

The shortfall will arise because of the explosion in population growth and mass migration to mega-cities which will be unable to find enough water for consumption and sanitation. Some of the worst problems will occur in countries already exposed to water-related difficulties such as Ethiopia, whose population is expected to more than double from 62 million today to 136 million in 2025.

Water shortages could also be exacerbated by global warming, with a 1.5 degree to three degree Celsius rise in global temperatures expected over the next century, according to some climatologists.

Another problem will be poor quality or poisoned water.

While the news on food supplies is by no means all gloomy, agriculture, like every other walk of life, is undergoing a revolution owing to technical and scientific innovations.

Tomorrow's new "precision agriculture" will be based on new, possibly genetically modified seed, that is more resistant and more productive. Farms of the future will also use more scientific growing techniques, optimizing the use of fertilizers, water and soil.

Farmers will be able to look to sophisticated satellite monitoring techniques which will forecast the weather, assess the risk of drought, or assess crop maturity. But this will only be possible if farmers have the right skills. The farmers of tomorrow will need to be computer literate and given access to telecommunications.

Futurologists also worry about a big increase in energy demand as the 21st century unfolds. This demand will be driven by the population explosion, but also by a possible fourfold increase in energy demand in developed countries, where average per capita consumption is up to 20 times higher than in developing nations.

A study by Barrie Stevens, deputy head of the OECD's International Futures Program, says energy supplies virtually everywhere will continue to be dominated by fossil fuels -- oil, gas and coal -- until the early part of the new century. But beyond 2020, the energy picture could change dramatically as oil production starts to decrease, and the output of natural gas also slackens.

Geo-politically, this will give increasing importance to the already growing share of supplies concentrated in politically-sensitive areas -- to the reserves of oil in the Middle East and to natural gas in Russia, Iran and Central Asia. The OECD projects that there will be growing pressure to find substitute fuels, and greater focus on renewable sources, such as wind and solar power. It also expects a stepped-up drive to harness new technologies such as nuclear fusion.