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Earth Science

Is Agriculture Sucking Fresh Water Dry? 379

Posted by Soulskill
from the i-blame-the-water-buffalo dept.
sciencehabit writes "The average American uses enough water each year to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and global agriculture consumes a whopping 92% of all fresh water used annually. Those are the conclusions of the most comprehensive analysis to date of global water use, which also finds that one-fifth of humankind's water consumption flows across international borders as 'virtual water' — the water needed to produce a commodity, such as meat or electronics, if the ultimate consumers were to make it themselves rather than outsource its growth or manufacture."
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Is Agriculture Sucking Fresh Water Dry?

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  • Do we actually need all those agriculture products?
    Isn't there a different way to use water for the same purpose with possibly higher efficiency?

    • by mangu (126918) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:18AM (#39042593)

      Do we actually need all those agriculture products?

      Yes, we do.

      The real question is, do we need to use that much water in agriculture? As the Israeli have proved, there is much that can be done to reduce water consumption when growing plants.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by SeaFox (739806)

        The real question is, do we need to use that much water in agriculture?

        Do we need to use that much fresh water in agriculture, I wonder. A lower-level filtration process yielding "grey water" for these uses would probably be fine and save energy over a full treatment-plant supply.

        • by Electricity Likes Me (1098643) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:53AM (#39042717)

          The problem is most water on the planet is full of salt. You can't use salt-laden "grey water" to grow things.

          You also want to take some care to ensure it's not full of heavy metals. Then there's the problem of whether other contaminants would be ignored or absorbed by plants.

          Basically, at the point where you might consider it on a large scale, it's generally just easier to use fresh or drinking quality recycled water.

          • by rtb61 (674572) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:50AM (#39042949) Homepage

            Water ain't just water, water is all about how expensive it it at the point of use. How much energy is required to provide potable water at the point of use.

            The underlying corporate psychopathic distortion, is there is a lack of water. The reality is corporation want to suck up all the cheaply accessible water and then sell it at inflated prices to match the high cost of remaining water sources. Simple straight forward psychopath economics.

            Water is not too salty, too hot, too cold, too contaminated, it is just to expensive and they poor are denied access because they can not afford to potable water once they cheaply accessible resources have been consumed by greed.

            Serious about reducing water usage, where is the government mandated shift too aquaponics where possible, an agriculture system with the highest water usage efficiencies, little or no waste and the highest food ouptut per land usage.

            Where are the government demands that user pays, including corporations for the average total cost of producing water, rather than corporations have access to the cheapest charged water sources and everyone else getting charged much higher prices (total water cost should be averaged and then user pays at the average rate).

            The only difference between a clean fresh river and reverse osmosis of sea water is cost and energy consumption. The war here is access to cheap water for the majority versus corporate greed.

            • by Oligonicella (659917) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @12:00PM (#39045209)
              "The underlying corporate psychopathic distortion, is there is a lack of water."

              Corporate? Water is typically produced by local municipalities, not corporations. Hence, your screed turns to mud. And for fuck's sake, put away the Poli-Sci 101 talk.

              "...where is the government mandated shift..." "Where are the government demands" "The war here is..."

              Socio-political bullshit.
              • by toadlife (301863)

                Water is typically produced by local municipalities

                Except in all the places where it is not. In the Western United States, much of the water comes from one of two large sources, and piped around to various areas via aqueducts. Access to it is controlled by the federal or state governments and local access to that water supplies are not ultimately up to local officials. In these cases, all local municipalities do it treat water and handle the "last mile" distribution.

                Here in central CA, farmers get their water supplies heavily subsidized, especially on the W

              • for fuck's sake, put away the Poli-Sci 101 talk.

                "...where is the government mandated shift..." "Where are the government demands" "The war here is..."

                Socio-political bullshit.

                If you have a disagreement with the post's claims, make your argument. If you find the language unclear, ask for clarification. If you think there are unreasonable insinuations being made, call them out. That's what I intend to do with your post.

                To me, the above complaint doesn't look like a rational problem with the argument: i

          • by ByOhTek (1181381) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:20AM (#39043073) Journal

            I think by gray water, he meant partially treated sewage water.

            And, so long as the toxic stuff was clean out, maybe.

            The problems with the bacterial and fungal contaminants would still be present, and even if they were initially cleaned out, some new stuff would get in and grow - it's a good growth medium. Care would have to be used.

            • by Hans Lehmann (571625) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @11:07AM (#39044553)
              The areas in which most farming is done, i.e. out in the sticks, also have the least amount of gray water due to the low population density. The only way this idea would work was if infrastructure was built to not only partially treat the sewage and runoff from the cities, but then transport it possibly hundreds of miles to where it's most needed for agriculture.
          • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:21AM (#39043075) Homepage Journal

            The problem is most water on the planet is full of salt. You can't use salt-laden "grey water" to grow things.

            What year is it? [wired.com]

            See also AIWPS [sdsu.edu].

            Basically, at the point where you might consider it on a large scale, it's generally just easier to use fresh or drinking quality recycled water.

            Easier is not the issue here, sustainability is. There's no question that if you continually pump more from aquifers than goes in you will have problems.

            • Basically, at the point where you might consider it on a large scale, it's generally just easier to use fresh or drinking quality recycled water.

              Easier is not the issue here, sustainability is. There's no question that if you continually pump more from aquifers than goes in you will have problems.

              Yes, but my point was that you end up needing to use a lot of energy to treat the water anyway. Leaving yourself with a product which has to be carefully handled by farmers (marginal sewage) is not necessarily a great improvement.

              It's not like water is hard to purify - but it is energy intensive, which is what this all boils down to.

        • by goombah99 (560566) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:38AM (#39042913)

          Agriculture does not consume water it uses water. Virtually all the water is returned to the eco system after use.

          However there are different sources of water. Ground water versus surface water. Depletion of ground water is not sustainable as water table levels are dropping. Surface water use is sustainable but also has consequences as stream dry up as they are diverted or become filled with water so contaminated it can't be re-used down stream.

          • by Sique (173459) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:18AM (#39043375) Homepage

            Not exactly. Agriculture can consume locally available water. And that's all what counts.
            If you pump water from ground depots which are not fully refilled, then most water used in agriculture ends up as clouds which the wind blows somewhere else. This water is completely lost for local use. For most of the Central U.S., the amount of water that comes in via rain or rivers, is less than the amount of water lost due to evaporation. And most of the water gets lost due to the amount of water used for agriculture. In this case, agriculture literally sucks the earth dry, because ground water, water from lakes and water enclosed in the last ice age in natural reservoirs below the surface is pumped up and evaporates. Those resources are not unlimited, and they will dry up sooner or later.
            The case is different for the East Coast or for most of Europe, where more fresh water comes in via rainfall or rivers, than gets lost due to evaporation. Here you can use as much water as you want, the resources will never dry up, you just have to make sure that used water will not intoxicate fresh water wells, so you have to build an extensive drainage system and water treatment plants.

            • by gr8_phk (621180) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @10:46AM (#39044267)
              Most farmers do everything they can to get rain water to run off the fields so they don't flood and over-water the crops. Then they pump water out of the ground and apply it to the fields as needed. The rain water then dumps very quickly into the rivers and causes flooding down stream. A simple way to take care of this is to dig a large basin (1-2 percent the area of the fields and say 20-30 feet deep) to collect the rain water, then pump that back onto the fields as needed and only when it's dry would they need to pump water from the deep aquifer. It would help all of the problems, but would cost a bit to set up. Oh, and this would re-apply the fertilizer that washes away when it rains - which is another problem both down-stream and as a cost to farmers and a natural resource issue (phosphorous).

              All those problems come down to poor resource management.
              • A 20-30 foot deep pool comprising 2% of arable land would be prohibitively expensive. In areas with a high water table, you'll have to keep it from caving in; also you are going to need to blast rock in many parts of the country, and the pool is going to have to be lined with something expensive (either concrete or a thick plastic liner). You'll also need to dredge that thing on a regular basis, as ag runoff is rather silt-laden.

                Theoretically possible? Sure.

                But "an easy way to help"? Nope.

              • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                by vladilinsky (1071536)
                It is funny I have been attempting to do something very similar to this for my land. But have hit quite a few road blocks, first it was explained to me from the resource management people here in Alberta Canada that it is Illegal to store rain water that way. I can not take rain water that could potential go to someone else's land and keep it for myself. Which i begrudgingly admit is understandable. That is what it is considered if I were to make a water collection pit. Second they analyze the amount
        • by Rich0 (548339)

          Usually grey-water is partially treated sewage - it doesn't meet drinking standards but it doesn't contain salt/etc that would kill plants.

          Israel is the size of New Jersey - no farm is more than 50 miles from a city most likely.

          In the US much of the agriculture happens in flyover country. These areas probably don't have that much sewage. Sure, they have it, but you need a LOT of water to irrigate a field.

          Now, runoff/etc with less treatment could be an option. I wouldn't be surprised if farms already try

          • by Luckyo (1726890)

            Water shortage is slowly manifesting in some dry places in Western world as climate change keeps rumbling on. It's far worse in 3rd world, where lack of water infrastructure is combined with inefficient farming methods.

            The issue will likely become more and more evident in the next few decades, as climate change causes some of the dry areas that are used for agriculture to become even dryer (as happened with Australia some time ago).

          • by Muad'Dave (255648)

            In the US much of the agriculture happens in flyover country. These areas probably don't have that much sewage. Sure, they have it, but you need a LOT of water to irrigate a field.

            They don't have much _human_ sewage. The amount of farm animal sewage that's generated is staggering. it's also generally produced close to plant-producing farms.

      • by nanoflower (1077145) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:26AM (#39042619)

        It's true that we can use much less water in growing our food but it's not easily done. More to the point it's not done cheaply and that's the biggest issue. So long as it adds to the cost of food (even if it's only pennies to a pound of tomatoes) there's going to be an issue with getting the majority of farmers to change their practices. Especially in third world countries where getting those improved practices out to the farmers can prove difficult.

        It's certainly a worth while thing if an area is experiencing a lack of rainfall (as in much of Africa) or if their aquifer is beginning to run low (apparently an issue in some areas of the Outback in Australia) but without some incentive it's going to be difficult to get people to change.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward

          > or if their aquifer is beginning to run low (apparently an
          > issue in some areas of the Outback in Australia)

          nah, they're used to it and have known it from childhood. Texas is a much more interesting example, as the town & city population density is much larger, and a large proportion of the state depends on "faith" for their resource planning needs and actively lobby against educating their own children.

          > but without some incentive it's going to be difficult to get
          > people to change.

          a big

        • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:02AM (#39042995)

          Some coal seam gas wells must evacuate water from the great artesian basin for years before they can have anywhere near productive gas yields. Around the Injune area, I've seen these mind-bogglingly huge evaporation ponds - actually trying to transfer precious groundwater back into the sky

          And although I've heard Santos are trying hard to make their reverse-osmosis plants work (that would be trying to pump water out of the aquifers at the gas extraction wells, and then back in somewhere I assume has no gas yield potential), they're having big problems making it work properly at scale.

          I wish I had some better links, but it's of serious concern:

          Almost 300 billion litres of water extracted with the gas annually. I've never heard what price Santos, Origin, QGC etc. are paying for this water: are they in fact paying any at all? And, "Millions of tonnes" of waste salt to be dumped somewhere.

          I know the situation in Queensland. And I know how much influence the Queensland greens have on the state labor government there. The only conclusion I can draw is that the Greens are just as corrupt as the rest of them.

          Posting AC, because I used to be closer to this stuff and should know better.

        • by hey! (33014) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:22AM (#39043405) Homepage Journal

          It's quite easy to imagine us using *much* less water in growing our food, and coincidentally spending a lot less money to produce it. It's just hard to do that without changing what we eat.

          If we were faced with an agricultural water crisis in the US, we could easily fix it by eating less beef -- at least beef that wasn't grass-fed. So I think that this problem might be naturally self-limiting in North America. As we approached the limits of the water available, the price of the most water-intensive foods would go up, and demand would shift to more water-efficient foods.

          The problem would solve itself, if we don't *try* to solve it. But the problem is that we *would* try to solve it. We'd invest public money to find ways of keeping the price of beef low, rather than letting the rising price of beef curb beef consumption. We might undertake massive public-works projects to divert water to the supply-chain of beef production. It's not that reducing the price of beef is an inherently bad thing to do, it's that costly beef isn't really a problem if there's enough capacity to produce food in general. Treating it like a problem is a waste of time, effort and money. Perhaps worse, most of the things we could do to fix the bogus "problem" would create real problems. Subsidizing beef will exacerbate the water shortage and strain public budgets. Diverting water will damage ecosystems and livelihoods dependent on them.

          • by Ihmhi (1206036)

            we could easily fix it by eating less beef -- at least beef that wasn't grass-fed.

            We already fixed this problem in America. Our cows eat corn, just like everyone and everything else in the country.

      • by adolf (21054) <flodadolf@gmail.com> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:29AM (#39042629) Journal

        It's just a basic business decision.

        If it's more profitable to use lots of "fresh" water than it is to reduce that water usage through different agricultural methods, then a good businessman will continue to use lots of "fresh" water.

        If the opposite becomes true, then a good businessman will adjust accordingly.

        Welcome to Capitalism.

      • by idji (984038) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:04AM (#39042771)
        No, we don't. Too much of that ag produce is going into feeding cows, pigs, etc and in producing biodiesel. With biodiesel they are only counting carbon savings, and not counting water, nitrogen, phosphorous and hidden energy costs (e.g. in producing fertilizer)
      • Actually no (Score:4, Informative)

        by tanveer1979 (530624) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:15AM (#39042815) Homepage Journal

        With the passing of time, local crops have dwindled due to inter regional trade, and supply demand constraints. For example, in arid regions of India, instead of wheat "Jowar, Bajra, Ragi...." etc., were grown which use much less water. but since majority eat wheat, in the interest of business, farmers shifted to Wheat, which uses more water. In other regions, which never grew rice(due to lack of water), canals saw increase in rice production, and movement of local populace to wheat and rice, instead of the local cereals which consume less water.
        So everybody does not need to eat rice. Rice and wheat users can have other cereals added to their diets, and increase demand, and some cultivation area can be reclaimed, and balance restored.

        Another aspect is hybrids. Many high yield varieties(which in the long run are not all that more beneficial) often require higher water content. In irrigated regions, people often switch to those varieties. In the short run you have better profits, but since these are not as resistant to local conditions(in some cases), it also means increased pesticide expense.

        So with intelligent Farming, and growing crops actually suited to the region, water usage can be minimized.

        Apart from that, there is the irrigation question. Using drip irrigation drops water usage by over 60-70%. We have used it on an piece of land where irrigated water was a scarcity, and illegal mining killed local rivulets and creeks. Due to very less quantity of ground water, and only perennial source being an artesian well, we had two options, stop growing, or use wisely. thanks to some govt subsidies and support, we were able to setup a drip irrigation system, which resulted in low water usage, and now we have surplus water.

        Unfortunately, much of agriculture, even in developed world, does not move to this kind of savings unless there is a sword hanging on the head. Countries like Israel have water shortage, so they have moved to intelligent use. If other places where shortage is not there yet, also move, it will result in water saving.

        Lastly, in many areas, rain water is not stored effectively, and a lot goes waste(flows into the sea). If a large part of that can be channeled to groundwater using recharge zones, it will replenish groundwater which can actually help people survive a year or 2 of dry season.

        That said, other than conservation, many places can also have strict policies to block untreated industrial waste flowing into rivers, which will result in higher fresh water availability

      • >>Do we actually need all those agriculture products?

        >Yes, we do.

        What if we reduced our meat consumption, and reduced consumption of other water-hungry foods?

        You are of course very correct about being more efficient about water use, as proved by many people in many desert and semi-desert areas.

      • by einhverfr (238914) <chris@travers.gmail@com> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:53AM (#39043247) Homepage Journal

        One of the things that goes on in permaculture is the idea of being careful about water use when growing even traditionally water-intensive crops. The idea is that you can actually do a LOT without a lot of water, and also that many mature ecosystems (including rain forests) tend to recycle a lot of their water in the form of transpiration turning into rainfall.

        So while we need a lot of water to be used in agriculture, it can be done efficiently, and with a surprisingly low level of water input even in arid environments.

        • Many rainforests if you remove the trees are quite arid an unsuitable for crops ... as has been seen ...

          But with the trees they are very lush and full of water

          They don't make more water they just recycle it very efficiently ...

    • Do we actually need all those agriculture products?

      Yes, we sure as hell do. We are TOTALLY dependent upon agriculture for our survival - at least in civilization as we know it.

      Isn't there a different way to use water for the same purpose with possibly higher efficiency?

      There is. Eat less meat. It takes tremendous amounts of water to produce the corn and, to a lesser extent, the wheat that we feed to become pork and cow meat.

      • by Gordonjcp (186804) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:56AM (#39042733) Homepage

        Here's a novel idea - you could try not feeding corn to cows. They can't eat it anyway, so it's a collossal waste of resources.

        Here's a hint - most of the world's farmland isn't rolling midwestern cornfields. Most of the world manages to raise livestock just fine.

        Partly it's a question of preference - Americans like bland greasy meat, so their livestock farming practices reflect that.

        • by Cimexus (1355033) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:13AM (#39042807)

          Indeed ... 'corn fed' meat is not the norm in most of the world. Here in Australia it's almost all grass-fed. Then again, we don't have the harsh winters that necessitate keeping cattle indoors for several months each year, so it's easier just to let em roam free and munch on the grass all year.

          Incidentally, I honestly don't know why Americans prefer corn-fed meat. It seems fattier than grass-fed and doesn't taste 'right' to me, but I suppose that's simply because I grew up eating 'our' meat and got used to that taste. As you say, a preference thing.

          • Uh... (Score:4, Funny)

            by raehl (609729) <raehl311@y a h oo.com> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:28AM (#39042873) Homepage

            I honestly don't know why Americans prefer corn-fed meat. It seems fattier than grass-fed

            You answered your own question. We're Americans, and we want more fat. Fat taste good, mmmm+e@Ds%*a`v=\|3s};aH

            NO HEARTBEAT

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            I honestly don't know why Americans prefer corn-fed meat

            They don't. They just don't know any better.

            FYI, the US government has subsidized the corn industry (i.e. they take money from other people, by force, and hand it over to the corn industry, like some kind of mafia scheme). This has allowed the corn industry to become a dominant force that would never have occurred in a free market. You will find corn sneaking into foods you would never have thought: ice cream for example (corn syrup, being subsidized,

        • by Bert64 (520050) <bert@slash d o t . f i renzee.com> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:58AM (#39042981) Homepage

          The corn farmers lobbyists are too influential in the US...
          They want to continue producing corn, and won't even consider changing their business model...
          So instead of looking to produce appropriate products to meet demand, they are looking for ways to force their existing products onto the market, even when they are not the best choice...

          Case in point high fructose corn syrup, it is a terrible sweetener and requires considerably more processing than sugar, making it more expensive to produce...
          In the US, high taxes on sugar force the use of HFCS...
          In other countries without such manipulative taxes, market forces result in sugar being used because its a more suitable product.

          The situation is so ridiculous, that people in the US actually go out of their way and often pay more to buy Coke that's been imported from Mexico because it uses real sugar instead of HFCS.

        • by Colin Smith (2679)

          "Americans like bland greasy meat, so their livestock farming practices reflect that."

          ITYM cheap meat.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by Anonymous Coward

          WTF???? Feeding the trolls....
          "They can't eat it anyway, so it's a collossal waste of resources."
          Citation? Because I have 300 dairy cows out back that will call you a lier. BTW, you don't feed cows, you feed there rumen bugs, which then feed the cow.

          • by Gordonjcp (186804)

            Well, true enough about their gut fauna and flora, but if you're just feeding them grain then they will be shitting most of it out untouched.

            Up here in Scotland, where it rains a lot and never gets much above 25C or below freezing, we tend to feed spent distillery mash (draff) mixed with shredded sugar beet pulp in the winter to supplement the poor grazing. That's substantially broken down by the mashing process and seems to do rather better than even bruised oats. It also stays hot for weeks after it's b

        • Partly it's a question of preference - Americans like bland greasy meat, so their livestock farming practices reflect that.

          Actually, many do not. We like spices on it. For example, I eat low fat ranged beef, with habanero sauce. Good stuff. And absolutely nothing bland about that. Of course, I have seen that most veggi dishes are about as bland as it gets.

          But hey, your accusation says a lot.

        • by dpilot (134227) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @10:11AM (#39043855) Homepage Journal

          Here's an idea... Go just a bit deeper. Why the heck aren't we using land for things that that land is suitable for? That includes other things as well as just the style/crops for farming.

          We build housing on prime farmland, as small farmers want to "cash out" and retire. At the same time, we irrigate deserts and turn them into farmland. Most of the time I agree that "the invisible hand of the marketplace" can come to a pretty decent solution, I just think that it can be very slow and damaging in the time it takes to get there. This is one of those cases, and it's all because of what I'll call for the moment, "false valuation."

          I once made an argument here on /. about "inherent value" and was promptly schooled by someone that nothing had inherent value - the only value anything had is that which the market assigns to it. This thread cites exactly one of those cases, and the commodity being poorly valued isn't just water, but inherently arable land.

          We tend to take something for granted - the marketplace assumes it's "just there for cheap/free" and neglects its value in making decisions. First we squander the resource, then with time we assign it a small value and begin to manage it in small-value ways. Eventually its value increases and we expand on those small-value management techniques. The problem is that sometimes those small-value management techniques are entirely inappropriate and often counter-productive as the resource moves to high-value status.

          We first settled in areas where land could be farmed, usually near rivers for transportation. As populations grew we turned the nearby farmland into towns and cities, and farmed land further away. Both the farmland and water were taken for granted - near zero value. Eventually land value started increasing - based on its building value, and farmland was still near-zero value. That started us doing things like irrigating desert land - like in parts of California. The Colorado River was a "cheap and easy" source of water for irrigation. Aquifers were a "cheap and easy" source of water in other areas.

          We grew into land use patterns based on "cheap and easy" water that is becoming less cheap and less easy, and those land use patterns are a big part of the problem. If we were farming where it's really "cheap and easy" to farm, and building our towns and cities on land that's no good for farming, perhaps we'd be better off. But we've come so far down the road we're on that this is almost impossible.

          I came to this realization at Disney World, on the "Soarin'" ride. Part of the ride went over the French countryside where a village was built onto a rocky crag, and all of the nearby land was farmed. This struck me as the exact opposite of the US, where we would have turned the farmland into suburbia, then terraced or leveled the rocky crag and turned it into farmland.

    • by Colin Smith (2679) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:57AM (#39042741)

      The perception is that when something is cheap, it is of low value so it doesn't matter if you consume too much of it.
      If you look at areas where water is scarce and where wars are fought over it, or where it has to be desalinated i,e, it's expensive, you'll find the users are a lot more careful over how much is used and how it is used.

      Compare US irrigation methods:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Irrigation1.jpg [wikipedia.org]

      with Persian Qanat methods:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qanat [wikipedia.org]

      • by petermgreen (876956) <plugwashNO@SPAMp10link.net> on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:28AM (#39042875) Homepage

        The perception is that when something is cheap, it is of low value so it doesn't matter if you consume too much of it.

        mmm, it's basic economics, if something is cheap then you don't worry about how much of it you are using. If you do then you will likely be driven out of buisness by someone who doesn't.

        One problem is in a lot of places there are a lot of people with rights to draw from the same aquifer. Since each individually makes up a tiny portion of the load on the aquifer none of them individually have any motivatation to reduce what they take from it even if the current overall take rate is unsustainable.

        Compare US irrigation methods:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Irrigation1.jpg [wikipedia.org] [wikipedia.org]

        with Persian Qanat methods:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qanat [wikipedia.org] [wikipedia.org]

        mmm, looks the persian QNAT method avoids a lot of evaporation losses and doesn't need power but it also can only be constructed in specific terrain and looks highly labor intensive to construct.

        A compromise could be to keep the pumps from the american method but deliver the water through soil seepage like the persians do.

      • by Rostin (691447) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:59AM (#39043719)
        1. That's a typical method of irrigation in the US only in the loosest sense of the word 'typical'. What you've managed to find is a picture of an antique. My dad has a 20-year-old center pivot sprinkler [vectorsite.net] that has low pressure dropped nozzles to reduce evaporation and soil compaction as much as possible, and it was old technology even back then. Center pivot means just what it sounds like. One end is fixed, and the other end goes around in a giant circle.

        The nozzles on these machines vary in size from the center (i.e. near the pivot) to the end. Think about it: The drops near the pivot go around the circle much more slowly than those on the end, and so if the nozzles were all the same size, a lot more water would be put out near the center. Also, the water pressure is higher there since it hasn't undergone friction losses through the length of the sprinkler. During the first summer that my dad owned that machine, I remember walking down it several times with a dot matrix print out in one hand and a bucket of nozzles in the other, replacing them one at a time to try to evenly distribute the supply of water as much as possible.

        A half-mile-long sprinkler was (again, 20 years ago) an $80K investment over the former, low-tech system of row irrigation, and he was and is not an especially wealthy farmer. Why would he go to so much expense and trouble? In part because one of his largest expenses is pumping costs, and center pivot irrigation makes much more efficient use of water, overall.

        2. I am not personally familiar with Qanats, but they appear to be a water collection and storage method, not a method of irrigation. It was surprising difficult to find quantitative information about irrigation in the middle east, but after several minutes of googling, I did find this brief, UN-produced report on irrigation in Saudi Arabia. [fao.org] It claims, in part:

        All agriculture is irrigated and in 1992 the water managed area was estimated at about 1.6 million ha, all equipped for full/partial control irrigation. Surface irrigation [i.e. row watering, like my dad used to do] is practiced on the old agricultural lands, cultivated since before 1975, which represent about 34% of the irrigated area (Figure 3). Sprinkler irrigation is practiced on about 64% of the irrigated areas. The central pivot sprinkler system covers practically all the lands cropped with cereals.

        Oh.

        • 1. That's a typical method of irrigation in the US only in the loosest sense of the word 'typical'. What you've managed to find is a picture of an antique.

          The fact remains that in large regions of the USA (and other countries for that matter) ground water is being depleted so aggressively it is causing land subsidence. The symptoms, ground water levels lowered by tens and even hundreds of feet, speak for them selves:

          http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-103-03/ [usgs.gov]
          http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/gwdepletion.html [usgs.gov]

          I particularly liked the part about closing down runways at Edwards AF base because of fissures caused by ground water depletion. One should also keep in mind that farm

    • by Luckyo (1726890) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:29AM (#39043109)

      Actually, modern agriculture is exceptionally efficient. Problems lie in other things:

      1. Our diet, specifically that of Western nations. Meat production is far more water-intensive then similar value (in terms of energy received from eating produce) plant production.
      2. Our numbers. Amount of the people on the planet has exploded over last hundred years or so as child and adult mortality basically collapsed with advent of modern medicine.
      3. People born in the cities having never encountered the reality of food production. We have things like "organically grown food", which is essentially an older, far less efficient way of doing agriculture (among other things in terms of water efficiency).

      So as a result, we have agriculture that is forced to support an ever growing appetites of ever growing amount of people. As a result we're forced to use large amounts of water to irrigate the fields and mind you, this irrigation is far more efficient then it ever was in our history in terms of water used per yields received!

    • by prefec2 (875483)

      The question is: Do we need to import water intensive products from countries wiht a water "income" problem, while throwing away our own agriculture products to stabilize market prices?

      The answer is: No. We should not force poor countries to produce meat and meat pre-products, like soja and corn, which we only use feed to animals in our country. Yes this will make meat more expensive for consumers, but only because they would have to pay the full price for the production and cannot externalize cost to peopl

      • by cbope (130292) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:11AM (#39043333)

        And the OTHER real question is; why does the average American use so much water?

        As an American living abroad for nearly 12 years, I noticed a dramatic difference in water consumption after moving out of the US. Where I live in Europe (Finland), we use roughly 10-20% of what I was used to in the US. People here don't let taps run. They don't take long showers. The appliances in the home (and machines in businesses) are designed to use FAR less water than the equivalent devices in the US. My washing machine uses worst-case 10-15% of a typical US-made washing machine. Ditto for the dishwasher. Yes, the appliances and machines cost more, better engineering is required.

        When something is cheap, you don't CARE about waste. This is part of the problem with what I call the cheap-ification of America. Everything must be cheap, cheap, cheap. It is a too price-driven market. Witness the success of Walmart, which has completely destroyed large numbers of otherwise fully working businesses, all in the name of CHEAP. Let's not even get into their business practices, hiring practices and treatment of their own employees. I vowed never again to step into a Walmart and to be first in line to raise my voice should they attempt to set up shop here (luckily, they are mostly absent in the EU).

  • Solution (Score:5, Informative)

    by Errol backfiring (1280012) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:18AM (#39042591) Journal

    if the ultimate consumers were to make it themselves rather than outsource its growth or manufacture.

    There are some good solutions in The Humanure Handbook [humanurehandbook.com]. That does not change corporate agriculture, but a little awareness on our behaviour is a good thing.

    As Mark Boyle (The Moneyless Man) once said: if we knew how hard it was to purify our drinking water, we sure as hell wouldn't shit in it.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:33AM (#39042653) Homepage Journal

    The average American uses enough water each year to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool

    The French don't get through that much in total.

    • Re:OB (Score:5, Funny)

      by frenchbedroom (936100) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:20AM (#39042839)

      That's right monsieur, we're saving the planet, one relinquished shower at a time! Come visit our lovely country and smell for yourself the wonderful aroma of true organic, water-saving BO. If you're an environment-minded person, come enjoy a subway ride in Paris! You'll be overwhelmed by the lengths we go to help all you beautiful, hygiene-conscious, rose-smelling-poop-defecators with your Olympic washing lifestyle. I mean literally, it will make you weep. Should you feel thirsty during your travel, you can lick the sweat off the brow of your neighbour, just like we do everyday. Every little drop counts! Seriously, it's not so bad when you get used to it.

      I'm off to my yearly little splash in the Seine! Ta-ta, mon cher ami!

  • I'd encourage anyone interested (and worried) by these issues to look up and study everything they can find about Permaculture. Solutions are available, if we use our brains.
  • by Karmashock (2415832) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @06:38AM (#39042667)

    Australians are dealing with it as well. The cities are drinking up more and more water. In the east where they have lots of water there is no question of starving the farms to feed the cities. But in the west water is a limited quantity.

    Sure, we could kill the bread basket of the US... or in california's case it's fruit-basket. But to what end? We're already importing a lot of food from mexico because the farms have been starved for decades. Huge stretches of California that used to be covered in farms are now dust. It has nothing to do with land management. The land is fine... there is no water. And there used to be lots. The cities drank it.

    Now, the cities need it... and if I have to choose between the cities getting the water or the farms then I'll choose the cities. But it's a dangerous game and the best solution is to build more dams, more reservoirs, more pipe lines, and more water treatment centers. All of that costs money but the cities have NOT built water infrastructure to keep pace with their consumption. The farms use a lot of water but their consumption has gone DOWN. The consumption of the cities has gone up and they haven't built anything. They just grow and grow without building new infrastructure for water. Even the big cities in the east aren't keeping pace. New York City has some giant water pipes under it that pump water out of an aquifer under the city. When initially built, the city only needed one of those pipes. The rest was extra for growth or if they wanted to shut down one for a time. Now they can't shut down any of them and are piping water in from farther away. But they've built nothing to deal with it.

    Contrary to what many environmentalists are saying, sustainable growth doesn't mean "no growth" instead it means expanding our infrastructure as we grow so that we don't have shortages. Killing the farms to get water to the cities only shifts problems. Do that and all our food will say "product of mexico" or canada or some other place because we won't grow anything. The Australians are having the same problem. Huge amounts of water flow into the sea untapped in eastern Australia. Dams that were scheduled to be built 30 or 40 years ago were never built. It would apparently spoil the view or something. So farmers in Australia are literally committing suicide because their family farms are being starved of water and driving them out of business. To say nothing of the fact that the country is increasingly dependent on foreign importation of food when previously they were largely self sufficient.

    Point being... Do not starve the farms. If the cities need water then stop looking at who to take it from. Man up and build more supply. There is plenty of water flowing out into the ocean that is never touched to say nothing of rainwater that is never touched. Furthermore, cities could much more readily make use of gray water for cleaning/etc then the farms. Starve the farms and you'll be sorry... it will just mean food prices start doubling and you lose all control over food quality standards because its all imported.

    • by Cimexus (1355033) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:04AM (#39042767)

      The other problem in Australia is the ~variability~ of the supply of water. When it's dry, you really need that extra infrastructure ... but most of the time it'll sit there being relatively unused.

      It's not true that the east has lots of water. Generally it either has too much, or not enough. "Not enough" is far more common than "too much". Right now it's wet: two consecutive La Nina summers with consequent flooding and heavy rains. Dams are all basically full. Crop yields are up (at least, in the areas where they aren't under 6 feet of water!)

      However just a couple of years ago we were at the tail end of an almost decade-long drought. Worst in a century they say. Many towns completely ran out of water and had to have it trucked in daily (reasonable sized towns too, like Goulburn NSW). And even in the large capital cities things were looking grim ... here in Canberra our dams were only ~20% full at one point. For a couple of years, we were on the highest level of water restrictions that existed - no watering of gardens/lawns/washing of cars/filling of pools permitted, and minimal water allowed for personal use. Similar stories in Sydney and Melbourne. And when a drought is so, so long, you begin to think it will never rain again and the seemingly absurd prospect of a major city with millions of people literally running out of water starts to look increasingly likely (scary!)

      Sydney built an expensive desalination plant in response to this threat. Canberra's building another dam (or technically, they are massively expanding one of the existing 4 dams that feed the city). Of course, as soon as these projects got underway, the rains started falling properly again for the first time in 9 years. The desal plant sits basically idle now (since Sydney dams are back to almost 100%) Still, I'm sure it'll be needed one day so I don't see it as wasted expenditure.

      You're absolutely right that huge volumes of water flow into the ocean in Eastern Australia that could be tapped to provide for the cities. Generally this is of a 'quick and heavy' nature (thunderstorm runoff). So in the long term I think the cities are OK. The big problem is that most of our agricultural areas are inland of the Great Dividing Range, so water that falls there flows inland into the Murray Darling basin. And rainfall out that way is very erratic ... and even in good years, it's not that high. Australia is a very dry continent once you're off the narrow coastal fringe between the east coast and the Divide (only 50-100km wide for the most part). No amount of dams will help the inland because the rain simply doesn't fall often enough. You'd have to divert water from the coasts (which is essentially what the Snowy Hydro Scheme [wikipedia.org] was about (and is largely what allowed cultivation of the inland to occur in the first place). But I don't think there's the appetite these days for such massive and expensive infrastructure projects to be honest.

      Also as far as I know, Australia still exports far, far more food than it imports. I'm sure I've read recent figures showing we produce 4-5x what we need to be self-sufficient ... so I don't think we are reliant at all on imported food. We might ~choose~ to import some food rather than grow our own, but if worst comes to worst and we suddenly were completely isolated from the rest of the world, we'd be fine.

      • We also have farms in this country that grow cotton and rice using cheap irrigation water. These crops were never suited to Australian conditions and unless there is some revolution in how to grow these crops (some new GM variety perhaps?) then it's foolish to grow them in the driest inhabited continent on Earth, and especially insane to do it in western NSW.

        Like the many, many posters above, the problem isn't "agriculture" per se, it's agriculture that's unsuited to the environment, whether that's cattle w

      • by MrKaos (858439)

        No amount of dams will help the inland because the rain simply doesn't fall often enough.

        We could pump our waste water inland and use it for agriculture (with fertiliser built in). I know it's a massive infrastructure project but it would also mean a great deal more potential food export plus enhance the ability to populate inland.

        Excellent post, BTW. Melbourne - Four seasons in one day, Sydney - Four seasons at the same time - sometimes - who knows??? I posted about Sydneys weather not so long ago [slashdot.org].

      • As to the system only being needed in a drought... I feel like you're saying you only need shoes when you go outside or only need a knife you need to cut something. Sure, you don't need a knife when you go jogging or shoes when you go to sleep. But you need it because there will be a drought. And that can go on for a decade or more. In california we struggled with a long drought and our great dams drained year after year. But we had enough because prior generations had built them.

        There has been much growth

    • That is fit for the 21st century. We had a food revolution in the 20th century, where we used massive amounts of fertilizer and massive amounts of water, this resulted in massive amounts of food. But at what cost? We chopped down most of the great rainforests and are quickly depleting what remains of the prime topsoil left in the world. We need a paradigm shift. We have the technology to make maximum use of water, we only need to make the investments needed to reap the savings. There are numerous small scal
      • Given that for any one calory worth of food we consume, we use about 10 cal worth of fossil fuels for its production and transport, I'd say that this paradigm shift will be upon us in force shortly, whether we want it or not.
      • That is fit for the 21st century. We had a food revolution in the 20th century, where we used massive amounts of fertilizer and massive amounts of water, this resulted in massive amounts of food. But at what cost? We chopped down most of the great rainforests and are quickly depleting what remains of the prime topsoil left in the world. We need a paradigm shift. We have the technology to make maximum use of water, we only need to make the investments needed to reap the savings. There are numerous small scal

    • by Rich0 (548339) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:23AM (#39043419) Homepage

      Won't economics just solve this problem? If food becomes scarce then its price will rise. If its price rises, then farmers will get more money. If farmers get more money they'll be willing to pay for more expensive water. If demand on water goes up its price will rise. As the price of water rises, the farmers selling expensive food will keep buying it, and people taking expensive long showers will take shorter ones. If water prices rise to 50 cents a gallon then voters will scream and politicians will build more water supply projects.

      By all means enforce food safety standards on imported foods, including inspections of where they are processed. Countries routinely inspect production of goods outside their borders - companies that don't comply aren't allowed to export their goods.

      • The plants need water... not money.

        We have lots of money. The problem isn't that we don't have the money to build. The problem isn't that we don't want to build.

        The problem is that we have sever NIMBYism... you can't build anything. A big solar power plant was recently closed down because it infringed on the habitat of a local lizard... yes, it was in the middle of the desert. If they tried to build the golden gate bridge today, they'd never be able to do it. The bay bridge and the golden gate were built at

  • Desalination .. just have solar powered desalination plants so that desalinated sea water can be piped inland to the farms .. israel does it .. if you dont wanna be stuck with a salt mound .. just remix the salt with the agricultural outflow and it'll be dumped back in the sea.

    • Yeah, only, like, wouldn't it be great if instead of having to build huge desalination plants and then pipe the water to where it's needed, there was some way that the water would, just, like, float up into the sky and then dump down on farmland?

      Wait...

      • by Luckyo (1726890)

        Indeed. While places like Israel and Australia are indeed in a bit of a trouble in relation to water, there are plenty of spots in the world where rainfalls are significant enough to reduce the need for such extreme measures to ensure irrigation needs are met. Incidentally, that's where most of the world's food is produced as well.

    • by Dr. Tom (23206)

      graphene bilayers selectively pass only pure water. problem solved.

  • by G3ckoG33k (647276) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:12AM (#39042803)

    Why don't we use Antarctic Ice? It should be transportable in large quantities. A super oil tanker sized ship should be able to supply some i guess.

    But would it be financially realistic?

    • Because the amount of water that a supersized oil tanker can carry is but drop in the big scheme of things.

      Just compare your own fuel consumption and domestic water consumption. Your total water consumption is a lot higher than the domestic consumption, because, as TFA says, agriculture uses the most. So, in a nutshell, the answer to your suggestion is: "No, that's pointless, because we just use too much frickin' water to start transporting it across the globe".

    • No. It has actually been studied.

  • by ewanm89 (1052822) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:14AM (#39042809) Homepage

    Maybe using lots of water in agriculture is actually a good thing.

    Lets actually look at what side effects might be if plants weren't getting enough water, for a start photosynthesis needs lots of water for the electron exchange of the reaction, now yes there are alternatives (arsenite) usually they are toxic, also only work in specific bacteria designed to do it that way.

    Fundamentally, the more water the more photosynthesis, the more sugar (for us and livestock to eat) and oxygen we get. Therefore maximizing water usage for agriculture without drowning the plants is a good thing for all of us. It's not like water doesn't fall from the sky, it is the most abundant substance on this planet and not using it in one area does not suddenly help get it in desert areas where there is droughts and famines.

    • It ceases to be a good thing when you have to deplete fossil aquifers to feed your plants, though. Or when you grab up all the freshwater upstream, leaving the guys downstream with dust.
  • I need to know how many Libraries of Congress each American consumes. For global agriculture I guess we could use Libraries of Alexandria...
  • by DeathToBill (601486) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:27AM (#39042869) Journal

    This study borders on sleight-of-hand to my mind. At least the way it is presented is misleading.

    The headline says that 92% of freshwater use is in agriculture. What it doesn't mention is that the vast majority of that "use" of water is rain that happens to fall on farmland. We could increase that number by converting land use to arable land without changing any natural flow of water. For instance, the city of Adelaide is about the same area as the county of Cornwall and is built largely on prime agricultural land. Moving the city 100 miles North East onto unfarmable land and resuming agriculture there would noticeably increase the agricultural use of water - but it would actually be an environmentally good thing.

    When it comes to diverting the natural course of water (extraction from rivers, building dams, draining lakes etc - what you might call exploiting the natural resource), the use of water in agriculture is much less - the majority here supplies water for urban residences and industry.

  • YES! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lumpy (12016) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:31AM (#39042887) Homepage

    Because water sprayed on plants and on the ground dissipates into space! And we have angered the sky gods so they are not sprinkling new water upon us as much!

    The author of the article needs a bit more education in earth science. Yes I know the problem with pesticide and fertilizer contamination is real but if areas do proper watershed management it's just fine. What is the REAL problem is when you get idiots in a dry area wanting to pipe water out of a different watershed to them. For example, all the morons living in California wanting great lakes water. and large dams that reduce the flow to create recreational lakes for rich people.

    Plus for example Arizona, Nevada, and California has a population greater than it's natural resources can handle, so people need to start moving away or live with the lack of water. Disrupting a watershed in that way will only cause problems for the area having the water taken out. It's there because of a balance of the water consumed is equal to the water collected from rain over the watershed area.

    I'd support Pumping the water from the end of the Mississippi to California, but they don't want that water, they want that clean stuff we have up here, not the 1100 miles of turd dumping that happens starting in Chicago. Which brings up another point, rivers flowing to the oceans uses 80X more water than agriculture and industry combined. Why are we not talking how rivers are sucking fresh water dry?

    • but if areas do proper watershed management it's just fine.

      True. However, no one does. None of the agricultural methods used in large scale agriculture use any kind of watershed management. They just keep draiing the water from the aquifers and not worrying about replenishment rates. It isn't about rain. Its about water access to provide more food than rain can do. Rainfall isn't reliable for large scale agriculture. In many areas where agriculture thrives rainfall is completely insufficient for crop growth. Especially for places like China and India. The solution

  • So, we will be needing windtraps and stillsuits soon?

    And how long before a company starts selling Perrie-air when the breathable air starts to run out?

    xD

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:36AM (#39042909)

    This is a better link.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/06/1109936109.full.pdf

  • by l2718 (514756) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:43AM (#39042925)

    Part of the problem is the traditional large subsidy that agricultural water gets (both via the infrastructure costs and in direct pricing). Farming would make better use of water if it had to pay the price.

    PS: "Olympic-size swimming pools per year" is a strange way to measure water usage. "about 6.8 cubic metres per day" is a much clearer way to express this number. In particular, this makes it clear that low-flow toilets have a negligible effect on water use compared to dishwashing, showers, etc.

  • by MrKaos (858439) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @07:55AM (#39042969) Journal
    It really puts grain dumping at sea to keep the commodities prices high into perspective.
  • by beforewisdom (729725) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:10AM (#39043029)
    The water to produce various food products: From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_water#Agricultural_products [wikipedia.org] the production of 1 kg beef costs 15,500 L water the production of 1 kg broken rice costs 3,400 L water the production of 1 kg eggs costs 3,300 L water the production of 1 kg wheat costs 1,300 L water Google on "Meatless Monday", it is an international effort to get people to eat meatless for one day a week ( Monday ) to reduce pollution and other environmental problems. One day a week have cereal for breakfast, A PB & J and Banana sandwhich for lunch and a plate of pasta for dinner. I've seen various articles that doing ONLY meatless monday helps the environment more than being a pretentious "locavore" all week long. If you are interested in more information about the connection between good choices and the environment here are some short articles: http://beforewisdom.com/blog/environment/un-urges-global-move-to-meat-and-dairy-free-diet/ [beforewisdom.com] http://beforewisdom.com/blog/environment/go-greendrop-meat/ [beforewisdom.com]
  • by cristiroma (606375) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:16AM (#39043043)
    Seems they successfully made it out with Gatorate instead! http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0387808/ [imdb.com]
  • Massive amounts of water; massive amounts of fertilizer; massive amounts of herbicide; massive amounts of pesticide. The dirt is mainly there to keep the stalks upright.

    ...did I mention the massive amounts of subsidies and massive amounts of corporate ownership?
  • by s122604 (1018036) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:48AM (#39043219)
    Another problem that could be solved if we started an emergency nuclear power plant building program, on the scale of the mobilization for WW2
    plenty of electricity available for desalinization.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I think agriculture still has a long way to go in terms of water efficiency before mass desalination plants and the associated environmental issues become a necessity. Simple things like lining irrigation ditches to reduce loss through leakage, and moving to more efficient irrigation technologies, not to mention plant and animal breeding and better soil management just to name a few. That said, you can put a nuke in my backyard tomorrow if it means we can start weaning off fossil fuels...
  • Virtual Isn't Real (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @08:50AM (#39043233) Homepage Journal

    Water used to make a product that's shipped isn't at all necessarily water that's shipped. If the water is consumed in place but not included in the product it's not shipped. So claims that "virtual water flows across borders" is BS.

    Likewise water that's used along its natural flow path, and cleaned (enough) to return it to its original destination, is impacting only in the place where it's diverted. When we put a factory on a plot of land we disrupt that land, and we're willing to accept some deletion from nature. Nature is very resilient, and not all diversions and conversions of it have unacceptable consequences.

    We do go too far, and we do waste far too much. But exaggerations like these don't do anything except discredit the already difficult efforts to require management of what we use.

  • by kenh (9056) on Wednesday February 15, 2012 @09:04AM (#39043309) Homepage Journal

    What is so alarming about using 92% of all the water that is used in agriculture? If we cut agricultural water use in half, it would still account for 84% of all the water that is used?

    100% percent of all the fresh water that is used is not 100% of all available fresh water. Some places have too much water, others too little, the primary issue is the distribution of the water, then the protection of it from harmful pollutants - the great thing about water is that it is about 100% reusable.

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