The connections that bind

“The poor people living near the coast in Bangladesh hardly consume any resources. They do not have a polluting car or even any gadget. They live in small shelters. Yet, they are the ones who are suffering the most because of rise in sea levels caused by global warming,” reflected Dr Atiq Rahman from Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies at a recent UN summit in Singapore.

Suddenly, the inter-connectivity of the world is becoming more and more visible even to those who failed to recognise it before. Our actions are affecting climate elsewhere. It is a startling truth that the lifestyles prevalent in developed countries for years are affecting the lifestyles of people in far-flung countries such as Bangladesh and Maldives.

The rising food prices have also dramatically highlighted how the world’s resources are tied to each other. “A wave of food-price inflation is moving through the world, leaving riots and shaken governments in its wake,” says The Economist. China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Indonesia and other food producing countries have greatly cut their food exports.

It is interesting to note the US President’s assertion that the growing numbers of people entering the middle class in India and China are responsible for the higher food prices. Echoing the same logic was the statement by US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice that the “improvement in the diets” of people in India and China is leading to “pressures to keep the food inside the country”. The United States, of course, is trying to justify its promotion of biofuel production, and is denying the role of biofuels in inflating food prices.

Surprisingly, the US leaders who are so concerned about the improved diets of Indians and Chinese are not paying much attention to the increasing per capita grain consumption of the Americans which has gone up from 946 kg per year in 2003 to 1,046 kg last year. Indians consume a mere 36 kg and the Chinese 11kg. India’s per capita grain consumption has remained quite static in recent years. When it comes to beef and chicken also, the Americans are far bigger eaters, leaving everyone else behind. The super-sized burgers and pizzas in the country itself should provide some indication of the statistics.

Trade in food is actually trade in water because of the large quantities of “virtual water” used to produce food. “Reducing food wastage by 50% – including post-harvest losses, losses in transport and handling, and losses in the household – might vastly reduce or even negate the need for additional water to grow more food, which will ensure sufficient water is available for food in the future,” says the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).

The political debate, however, has not focussed on water yet. To produce a kilogram of meat takes anywhere between 5,000 to 20,000 litres of water, which is what an average domestic household uses over 10 months (50litres/person/day) as pointed out by SIWI.

Just as cars or heating systems throwing out greenhouse gases in the US are leading to rising sea levels in Bangladesh, meat burgers being consumed in the developed world could be leading to water scarcity somewhere else. It is time to pay a little more heed to the connections that bind the world together.

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