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In Honor of World Water Day, Meet a Guy Who Uses Enough Water for a City of 40,000 People

Photo: Australian Laurie Arthur on his land

Australian farmer Laurie Arthur farms 10,000 acres, using the same amount of water as a city of 40,000 to produce food for 100,000.

 

Laurie Arthur is a farmer in the heart of Australia’s bread basket, the basin of the Murray River, who was kind enough, when I was trying to understand water, to explain how water works for farmers.

Arthur lives out in the wide open country east of Adelaide and north of Melbourne — flat, irrigated farmland where his nearest neighbor is 12 miles down the road, and where his white farm truck is often flanked by squads of kangaroos, who have no trouble keeping pace as he drives from field to field at 40 or 50 mph.

Arthur lives comfortably in a world most of us never visit, and even have a hard time grasping. He farms 10,000 acres. That amount of land is impossible to visualize, but its scale is easy to bring down to Earth.

Arthur took me to a single 150-acre field, which seemed to spread out in all directions toward the horizon. (You could park five Wal-Mart Supercenters, including their full parking lots, on that one patch of dirt.) That single field has a perimeter of 2 miles.

It is 1 percent of Laurie Arthur’s land.

If the land Arthur is responsible for cultivating is hard to grasp, the water he uses to make it blossom is truly astonishing.

To raise a single year’s crop, Arthur uses 1.6 billion gallons of water (6 billion liters) — a big slug of water. It’s enough to supply all the water needs for a town of 40,000 people, for a year.

One guy, with one farm, using as much water every single day as a city of 40,000 people.

Laurie Arthur has the charm and wry humor we find so irresistible in Australians — a disarming confidence, along with the bemused understanding that today, farmers are far more alien creatures than, oh, astronauts.

Arthur has introduced himself at school parent events as a farmer, and had fellow parents turn to him matter-of-factly and say, “Oh, you’re a water waster, then.”

What is Laurie Arthur doing with all that water, anyway?

He’s raising food — rice, to be specific.

In a year when everything goes right, Arthur raises 20 million pounds of rice, using those 1.6 billion gallons of water.

Is that good, or is that cavalier?

Well, with enough water to supply a city of 40,000 people for a year, he raises enough food to feed a city of 100,000 people for a year — all 100,000 people, 3 meals a day, for 365 days.*

Arthur smiles. “How much is the right amount of water to feed a city of 100,000 people?”

Today is World Water Day. The point of World Water Day is to draw attention to our favorite, our most familiar, and our most taken-for-granted resource. There is a delightful irony for water folks in the fact that World Water Day is itself mostly ignored by everyone outside the world of water. (Could we start a day to draw awareness to World Water Day?)

Every person on Earth revels in water every day, in some fashion — whether we celebrate water or not.

This year, the theme of World Water Day is the connection between water and food. Although most of us never think about water when we tuck into an omelet, or a turkey sandwich, or a dinner of salad, steak and rice pilaf, there is no more intimate connection than that between water and food.

In fact, food is water.

         To finish reading this essay, click here. It is cross-posted with IBM’s SmarterPlanet blog.

 

Also find out how much water is embedded in common foods, and learn about the global water footprint of our crops.

 

Comments

  1. Jeremy
    Texas
    July 11, 2012, 12:43 am

    This is terrible and should not be allowed but people wake up to the oil fracking going on in America right now. Here in Texas and other states big oil is pumping billions of gallons of water into old oil wells and mixing it with millions of gallons of chemicals. It wastes water and pollutes the existing ground water. At a time of drought here, Rick Perry is allowing his cohorts to rape the water and land in Texas. This is one of the worst things to happen to clean water in the history of man. HELP!

  2. [...] Unfortunately, Australia’s freshwater turtles are also highly endangered, in large part due to over-tapping of the Murray-Darling River Basin that supports many of them. That basin is also the source of much of the country’s agriculture, as well as water used for cities. (Charles Fishman recently wrote about the Aussie who uses as much water as 50,000 people.) [...]

  3. Gareth
    Australia
    March 26, 2012, 11:37 am

    It’s great that he produces so much rice, sure. But growing rice, one of the thirstiest crops, in one of the driest parts of the driest continent on earth, is just ridiculous. That same amount of water could have done so much more…

  4. Don
    United States
    March 23, 2012, 7:22 pm

    So perhaps you could compare the energy content of various types of crop compared to the water required to grow them? Are there irrigation methods that would affect the above numbers. Comparing the amount of water used to grow crops vs average use of a random city (Australians are typically under water restrictions and would use less) doesn’t give us a good understanding of whether the guy is wasting water or not. Is he using fresh water or grey water?

    • Charles Fishman
      March 23, 2012, 7:38 pm

      Actually, Don, very briefly, I tried to put the water used by Laurie Arthur in the context not of city use but of average water used to produce food. He comes out way ahead on the simple 1 calorie requires 1 liter rule-of-thumb. You could certainly compare water required versus energy content in the resulting foods — I think that would be a much more demanding undertaking than a simple blog post — but at some level it’s a little misleading, as well. We don’t want to just eat cucumbers or green beans, or whatever food produces the most energy per liter of water. It might be nice to know, but it would be unlikely to reshape our taste in food. Laurie Arthur uses flood irritation — he’s growing rice — so his is not the best form of irrigation, no question. And he uses water from the Murray River. Not gray water. Irrigation water from the river.

  5. scott white
    Sydney Australia
    March 22, 2012, 10:40 pm

    The fact that anyone is allowed to grow rice in a desert is beyond me. He could still produce the same amount of food by growing a crop that used 1/5th the water.

  6. A von Hain
    Germany
    March 22, 2012, 3:45 pm

    We are in progress, but this guy proves that there is no reason to rest. Everybody in Europe, US, Australia, etc. has to show solidarity and support charity organizations, which care about the goal „drinkable water for everybody“. Did you know that you are able to donate to UNICEF without even charging your budget? For example your old european vacation money (e.g. German d-mark, Spanish peseta) via mail. Change tomorrow with money from yesterday. More information: http://www.euromoney24.com/donations