The Population-Poverty Connection By Lester R. Brown

By early 2007 the world looked to be on track to meet this goal, but as the economic crisis unfolds and the outlook darkens, the world will have to intensify its poverty reduction effort.

Among countries, China is the big success story in reducing poverty. The number of Chinese living in extreme poverty dropped from 685 million in 1990 to 213 million in 2007. With little growth in its population, the share of people living in poverty in China dropped from 60 percent to 16 percent, an amazing achievement by any standard.

India’s progress is mixed. Between 1990 and 2007, the number of Indians living in poverty actually increased slightly from 466 million to 489 million while the share living in poverty dropped from 51 percent to 42 percent. Despite its economic growth, averaging 9 percent a year for the last four years, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s support of a grassroots effort to eradicate poverty, India still has a long way to go.

Brazil, on the other hand, has succeeded in reducing poverty with its Bolsa Familia program, an effort strongly supported by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. This is a conditional assistance program that offers poor mothers up to $35 a month if they keep their children in school, have them vaccinated, and make sure they get regular physical checkups.

Between 1990 and 2007, the share of the population living in extreme poverty dropped from 15 to 5 percent. Serving 11 million families, nearly one fourth of the country’s population, it has in the last five years raised incomes among the poor by 22 percent. By comparison, incomes among the rich rose by only 5 percent. Rosani Cunha, the program’s former director, observed, “There are very few countries that reduce inequality and poverty at the same time.”

Several countries in Southeast Asia have made impressive gains as well, including Thailand, Viet Nam, and Indonesia. These gains in Asia seemed to ensure that the U.N. Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty by 2015 would be reached. Indeed, in a 2008 assessment of progress in reaching the MDGs, the World Bank reported that all regions of the developing world with the notable exception of sub-Saharan Africa were on track to cut the proportion of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015.

This upbeat assessment was soon modified, however. At the beginning of 2009, the World Bank reported that between 2005 and 2008 the incidence of poverty increased in East Asia, the Middle East, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa largely because of higher food prices, which hit the poor hard. This was compounded by the global economic crisis that dramatically expanded the ranks of the unemployed at home and reduced the flow of remittances from family members working abroad.

The number the Bank classifies as extremely poor—people living on less than $1.25 a day—increased by at least 130 million. The Bank observed that “higher food prices during 2008 may have increased the number of children suffering permanent cognitive and physical injury caused by malnutrition by 44 million.”

Sub-Saharan Africa, with 820 million people, is sliding deeper into poverty. Hunger, illiteracy, and disease are on the march, partly offsetting the gains in countries like China and Brazil. The failing states as a group are also backsliding; an interregional tally of the Bank’s fragile states is not encouraging since extreme poverty in these countries is over 50 percent—higher than in 1990.

In addition to attacking poverty, other MDGs adopted in 2000 include reducing the share of those who are hungry by half, achieving universal primary school education, halving the share of people without access to safe drinking water, and reversing the spread of infectious diseases, especially HIV and malaria. Closely related to these are the goals of reducing maternal mortality by three fourths and under-five child mortality by two thirds.

On the food front, the number of hungry is climbing. The long-term decline in the number of hungry and malnourished that characterized the last half of the twentieth century was reversed in the mid-1990s—rising from 825 million to roughly 850 million in 2000 and to over 1 billion in 2009. A number of factors contributed to this, but none more important than the massive diversion of grain to fuel ethanol distilleries in the United States. The U.S. grain used to produce fuel for cars in 2009 would feed 340 million people for one year.

The goal of halving the share of hungry by 2015 is not within reach if we continue with business as usual. In contrast, the number of children with a primary school education does appear to be on the rise, but with much of the progress concentrated in a handful of larger countries, including India, Bangladesh, and Brazil.

When the United Nations set the MDGs, it unaccountably omitted any population or family planning goals, even though as a January 2007 report from a U.K. All Party Parliamentary Group pointed out, “the MDGs are difficult or impossible to achieve with current levels of population growth in the least developed countries and regions.” Although it came belatedly, the United Nations has since approved a new target that calls for universal access to reproductive health care by 2015.

Countries everywhere have little choice but to strive for an average of two children per couple. There is no feasible alternative. Any population that increases indefinitely will eventually outgrow its natural life support systems. Any that decreases continually over the long term will eventually disappear.

In an increasingly integrated world with a lengthening list of failing states, eradicating poverty and stabilizing population have become national security issues. Slowing population growth helps eradicate poverty and its distressing symptoms, and, conversely, eradicating poverty helps slow population growth. With little time left to arrest the deterioration of the economy’s natural support systems, the urgency of moving simultaneously on both fronts is clear.

Adapted from Chapter 7, “Eradicating Poverty and Stabilizing Population” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at

Raising Water Productivity to Increase Food Security

With water shortages constraining food production growth, the world needs an effort to raise water productivity similar to the one that nearly tripled land productivity over the last half-century. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, it is not surprising that 70 percent of world water use is devoted to irrigation. Thus, raising irrigation efficiency is central to raising water productivity overall.

Data on the efficiency of surface of water projects—that is, dams that deliver water to farmers through a network of canals—show that crop usage of irrigation water never reaches 100 percent simply because some irrigation water evaporates, some percolates downward, and some runs off. Water policy analysts Sandra Postel and Amy Vickers found that “surface water irrigation efficiency ranges between 25 and 40 percent in India, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand; between 40 and 45 percent in Malaysia and Morocco; and between 50 and 60 percent in Israel, Japan, and Taiwan.”

Irrigation water efficiency is affected not only by the type and condition of irrigation systems but also by soil type, temperature, and humidity. In hot arid regions, the evaporation of irrigation water is far higher than in cooler humid regions.

In a May 2004 meeting, China’s Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng outlined for me in some detail the plans to raise China’s irrigation efficiency from 43 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2010 and then to 55 percent in 2030. The steps he described included raising the price of water, providing incentives for adopting more irrigation-efficient technologies, and developing the local institutions to manage this process. Reaching these goals, he felt, would assure China’s future food security.

Raising irrigation efficiency typically means shifting from the less efficient flood or furrow systems to overhead sprinklers or drip irrigation, the gold standard of irrigation efficiency. Switching from flood or furrow to low-pressure sprinkler systems reduces water use by an estimated 30 percent, while switching to drip irrigation typically cuts water use in half.

As an alternative to furrow irrigation, a drip system also raises yields because it provides a steady supply of water with minimal losses to evaporation. Since drip systems are both labor-intensive and water-efficient, they are well suited to countries with a surplus of labor and a shortage of water. A few small countries—Cyprus, Israel, and Jordan—rely heavily on drip irrigation. Among the big three agricultural producers, this more-efficient technology is used on 1–3 percent of irrigated land in India and China and on roughly 4 percent in the United States.

In recent years, small-scale drip-irrigation systems—literally a bucket with flexible plastic tubing to distribute the water—have been developed to irrigate small vegetable gardens with roughly 100 plants (covering 25 square meters). Somewhat larger systems using drums irrigate 125 square meters. In both cases, the containers are elevated slightly, so that gravity distributes the water. Large-scale drip systems using plastic lines that can be moved easily are also becoming popular. These simple systems can pay for themselves in one year. By simultaneously reducing water costs and raising yields, they can dramatically raise incomes of smallholders.

Sandra Postel estimates that drip technology has the potential to profitably irrigate 10 million hectares of India’s cropland, nearly one tenth of the total. She sees a similar potential for China, which is now also expanding its drip irrigated area to save scarce water.

In the Punjab, with its extensive double cropping of wheat and rice, fast-falling water tables led the state farmers’ commission in 2007 to recommend a delay in transplanting rice from May to late June or early July. This would reduce irrigation water use by roughly one third, since transplanting would coincide with the arrival of the monsoon. The resulting reduction in groundwater use would help stabilize the water table, which has fallen from 5 meters below the surface down to 30 meters in parts of the state.

Institutional shifts—specifically, moving the responsibility for managing irrigation systems from government agencies to local water users associations—can facilitate the more efficient use of water. In many countries farmers are organizing locally so they can assume this responsibility, and since they have an economic stake in good water management, they tend to do a better job than a distant government agency.

Mexico is a leader in developing water users associations. As of 2008, farmers associations managed more than 99 percent of the irrigated area held in public irrigation districts. One advantage of this shift for the government is that the cost of maintaining the irrigation system is assumed locally, reducing the drain on the treasury. This means that associations often need to charge more for irrigation water, but for farmers the production gains from managing their water supply themselves more than outweigh this additional outlay.

In Tunisia, where water users associations manage both irrigation and residential water, the number of associations increased from 340 in 1987 to 2,575 in 1999, covering much of the country. As of 2009, China has more than 40,000 water users associations to locally manage water resources and to maximize water use efficiency. Many other countries now have similar bodies. Although the first groups were organized to deal with large publicly developed irrigation systems, some recent ones have been formed to manage local groundwater irrigation as well. Their goal is to stabilize the water table to avoid aquifer depletion and the economic disruption that it brings to the community.

Low water productivity is often the result of low water prices. In many countries, subsidies lead to irrationally low water prices, creating the impression that water is abundant when in fact it is scarce. As water becomes scarce, it needs to be priced accordingly.

A new mindset is needed, a new way of thinking about water use. For example, shifting to more water-efficient crops wherever possible boosts water productivity. Rice production is being phased out around Beijing because rice is such a thirsty crop. Similarly, Egypt restricts rice production in favor of wheat.

Any measures that raise crop yields on irrigated land also raise the productivity of irrigation water. For people consuming unhealthy amounts of livestock products, moving down the food chain reduces water use. In the United States, where the annual consumption of grain as food and feed averages some 800 kilograms (four fifths of a ton) per person, a modest reduction in the consumption of meat, milk, and eggs could easily cut grain use per person by 100 kilograms. For 300 million Americans, such a reduction would cut grain use by 30 million tons and the need for irrigation water by 30 billion tons.

Bringing water use down to the sustainable yield of aquifers and rivers worldwide involves a wide range of measures not only in agriculture but throughout the economy. The more obvious steps, in addition to more water-efficient irrigation practices and water-efficient crops, include adopting more water-efficient industrial processes and using both more water-efficient household appliances and those that use no water at all, such as the new odorless dry-compost toilets. Recycling urban water supplies is another obvious step in countries facing acute water shortages.

By Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute,