Water Blog

Jul 30, 2015

The Surprising Connection Between Bad Water Policy and Rising Sea Levels

By Seth M. Siegel

I was recently invited to be the guest speaker at a New York event hosting ambassadors to the UN from the South Pacific island nations. Some of the countries, such as Fiji, Samoa and the Marshall Islands, are fairly high profile—at least to Americans who drink bottled water or who know the history of the bloody World War II South Pacific campaign. Others like Vanuatu, Tonga and Tuvalu are likely less well known.

Whether somewhat famous in the western world or hardly at all, these isolated countries share similar interests and concerns. The islands—mostly volcanic specks—are nations with modest populations and little in the way of industry or fertile land for agriculture. Many also suffer from scarce water resources.

It was that water scarcity that brought us together for an evening of conversation. Toward the end of our earnest discussion, in which water problems were identified and solutions suggested, one of the diplomats said with a sorrowful laugh, “This is all great for getting us more water. Do you have any ideas for how to get us less?”

From the chuckles and head nods of those around the table, I could tell that everyone else understood his reference. Reading the puzzled look on my face, the diplomat explained. “Rising sea levels are our largest long term threat. Some of our islands could be submerged in a storm and never recover. It would be nice if you could help to find some way to slow the rise of the oceans.”

It is generally common knowledge that rising sea levels threaten people and property in low-lying coastlines around the world, with climate change blamed as the main cause of that rise. But it is far less well known that climate change isn’t the only culprit. Bad water and agricultural policies around the world contribute significantly to the problem. Some experts estimate that melting ice is only responsible for two-thirds of the rising seas with another third tied to practices like the over pumping of the world’s aquifers.

The main reason aquifers are over pumped is to develop more water resources for agriculture. Yet, once water is brought to the surface, it is frequently used carelessly or wasted. And of all agricultural practices, none is as wasteful of water as is flood irrigation—a method that can result in water losses of fifty percent or more.

So, what’s the connection to rising sea levels? The world’s aquifers can hold incomprehensibly large volumes of water. In recent decades, the water in these underground natural reservoirs has been pumped out far faster than rain and snow could replenish them. Globally, the stored water volume of the aquifers has declined, frequently by more than half.

Most of the water wasted in flood irrigation gets lost to evaporation, returning to earth as rain. Some of that rain falls over land or rivers and lakes, but a great deal of it also falls in the ocean, permitting sea levels to rise. An enormous amount of water, stored in aquifers for thousands of years, is increasingly finding its way to the world’s oceans.

For the ambassador who asked for an idea on how the South Pacific islands can get less water, here’s one. Replace flood irrigation with drip irrigation and other efficient means of irrigating crops. It will be better for the plant, better for the soil, and better in slowing the world’s rising oceans.

The connection between bad water policy and rising sea levels is an example of the interconnectedness of water failures in one part of the world to water problems in another. Water was long thought to be a local or regional concern. Now, it is clear that over pumping of an aquifer in California, or elsewhere, can threaten the well-being of people living far away in the isolated South Pacific.


Seth’s upcoming book, Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World (September 2015) presents a solution to the water crisis that will also grow the economy. Copyright © 2015 Seth M. Siegel. All rights reserved.

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The Surprising Connection Between Bad Water Policy and Rising Sea Levels