Dornadula Chandrasekharam
Former Chair Professor I I T Bombay, India

Mesopotamian barter system and food security

Ensuring food security for the world population is a challenge. Across the countries there are about 800 million people who are deprived of having healthy food.  While this is so, globally tons of food is wasted that could feed the millions!! According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) globally, 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted . The amount of resources consumed to make this food is wasted and under the present global climate change scenario, large amount of greenhouse gas is emitted. This is more so in industrialized countries than non/or developing countries. Per-capita food wastage in developed countries is about 100 kg/year while this figure is ten times lower in the developing countries like MENA and Sub-Saharan Africa. In future countries with food security will be the most powerful one in the world. Water is essential to grow food and be food secured. This is the issue with the above developing countries. Food imports are the best way to keep the hungry people satisfied…..but for how long. A country depending on food imports…i.e. country depending on virtual water trade (VWT) will never be able to develop.

The world is slowly moving towards barter system… ancient way of commodity trade that was prevalent in 6000 BC introduced by the Mesopotamia tribes. This was adopted by the Phoenicians and later the system was refined by the Babylonians. In the present world currency is exchanged for food under VWT. Chinese exchanged silk!! In future countries which are food surplus   i.e. countries with strong agricultural base or production will be the strongest in the world. Oil rich countries can barter oil for food; countries rich in minerals resources can barter for food; countries like Yemen can exchange quat (khat)  for food; but how about countries who have no such resources:- Djibouti, Eritrea, Egypt, Ethiopia ; have to depend solely on VWT to feed their population. So, for future sustainable development water is essential for these countries. Saudi Arabia has increased its wheat imports from 1.92 million tons to 3.03 tons in 2014 and banned wheat production in the country. Egypt imports 5.2 million tons of maize with VWC (virtual water content ) of 1.12 cubic meters / kg. Egypt saved that much of its water resources. Now countries are heavily depending on WVC to conserve its water resources……even countries with sufficient water (both green and blue water) are adopting this strategy of VWT to conserve its water resources. For example China cultivates soya in Brazil on leased land. These, however, are short term solutions to tide over immediate demand. But VWT has its own dangerous setbacks. For example, the food exporting countries can simply impose food export control law and stop or reduce food exports thus jeopardizing the growth of food importing countries. The moral of the story is that countries should be food and water secured. Countries now have realized the importance of water that is very evident from the 11 riparian countries sharing the White Nile River water.  Over the past 5000 years Egypt had control over the Nile which is the main source of water for irrigation. Due to expanding population and increase in demand for food and escalating cost of imports, these 11 riparian countries are exercising their rights over the Nile flowing within their soil! Quite reasonable. Nile provides 58 billion cubic meters of water to Egypt to meets its agricultural and domestic demand. Although the groundwater available in the Nubian sandstone aquifer is an additional sources of water supporting agriculture in Egypt, this water stored in this sandstone in fossil water and may deplete any time. This is a transboundary aquifer shared by Libya too. Egypt’s current per-capita water consumption is about 985 cubic meters/y which is projected to decline to 536 cubic meters/y in 2030 when its population crosses 106 million.

In addition to the demand of White Nile water by the riparian countries, The Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile is going to be a bone of contention to Egypt. Once this Dam comes up, the surface water flow into Aswan Dam will drastically decrease there by further curtailing the available water for irrigation. Another country that depends on VWT is Eritrea. Another country that is greatly affected is Eritrea. Although the cultivable land in Eritrea is about 16,000 sq. km  only 5030 sq km  land is used for cultivation due to insufficient water. The per capita water requirement is projected to fall below 1300 cubic meter /year from the present 1470 cubic meter /year. The country’s GDP has fallen from 1.3% in 2013 to 0.3% in 2015. Adopting Mesopotamia tribe’s barter system is in one way good for the countries under the current food and water security situation. Countries rich in water resources, like India, can produce sufficiently large quantities of food for trade using its rich monsoon and surface water and the GCC countries, being the centers of oil and gas can exchange energy for food and water. This way future war for water can be mitigated. Since countries are dependent on each other, conflicts can be minimal.  Alternate solution is, adopting desalination technology!

Food security issue is driving countries to adopt desalination technology to get freshwater. Several desalination plants have emerged in the Gulf countries including Egypt, Djibouti and other countries. But this not a long-term solution. Desalination process is cost intensive and centers around GHG emissions issue. Currently large amount of fossil fuels is spent to obtain fresh water from the sea. Small oil producing countries may not be able to spend fossil energy to support desalination since their GDP depends on oil exports!! However, solutions exist for these countries to tie over food security situation for the future. We will discuss about these solutions soon.

About the Author
I am a Retired chair professor from Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and currently teach at IIT Hyderabad. I have 200 publications in the above fields and have supervised 25 Ph D students.