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Embedded Water and virtual water trade drying up Indian agriculture

Irrigation via tubewell

Irrigation via tubewell

Embedded Water:

India, a country of more than 1.3B, has seen her worst drought in two years, so much so that towns like Latur in Maharashtra state had to be served by trains full of water for its residents.

Embedded water is one of the key factors driving this agricultural country towards drought, says Prashant Goswami, Director and Climate Scientist at CSIR-National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies in New Delhi, in his latest interview with Bloomberg.”We export agriculture products without any thought,”.”When water is embedded in a product that’s exported, it’s lost forever. That’s a bigger danger for our water.”

Unseen in 850 kilograms (1,874lbs) of wheat is about 128 kilograms (282 lbs) of water that is embedded within the food. Millions of farmers in India account for about 2.5 percent of global agriculture exports, meaning that a large amount of water embedded in produce is shipped overseas and lost for good by a nation still emerging from one of its worst droughts in decades.

Personal reflections:

Having lived and worked in the north Indian agriculture dominant states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, I can relate to Prof. Goswami’s observations.

I remember my very first assignment, working at Janhit Foundation in Meerut, towards the promotion of sustainable/organic agriculture practices starting in 2002, when I was a postgraduate student in Environmental Sciences and Public Health.

I was astounded to observe how incessantly the tubewells used to run on electricity or more expensive diesel powered generators in the agricultural fields in and around Meerut district. Meerut residents, boasted about living in the Doab (region between two river, the Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna basins) in western Uttar Pradesh.

As emphasized in the article, Goswami predicts that at this rate of exporting water intensive crops such as wheat, sugarcane and rice, India will run out of all her water supply in 1,000 years.

It has always been presumed by the farmers and policymakers that groundwater reserves are a plenty, soil very fertile and reserve of soil minerals adequate to grow all the water intensive cash crops such as sugarcane, wheat and paddy. However, in the decades following the green revolution, the condition has deteriorated owing to the following reasons:

  • Mono-cropping prevalence throughout the region
  • Extensive use of chemicals in farming
  • Abandoning of traditional seeds and methods in farming
  • Diminished livestock usage in practicing agriculture
  • Increasing abandoning of agriculture by farmers’ next generations
  • Declining cost benefit involved in farming
  • Climate change
  • Depleting and polluted groundwater aquifers due to over exploitation
  • Exponential growth in population

Talk to the farmers in any of the above mentioned northern Indian states and they will tell you that they had dug at least five times deeper for pumping out water for irrigation than their fathers. The farmers have to continue to explore deeper underground aquifers on a regular basis, at times even annually, to sustain the irrigation and agriculture.

Learning from the neighbors:

Unplanned and unabated subsidies on electricity and chemicals by the policymakers has left Indian agriculture in these dire straits. Its time to look at India’s neighbors and take a few pointers. China, for instance, has stopped exporting water intensive crops like paddy and increased importing water loaded crops in the recent years. India should do the same for its agriculture to remain sustainable.

“Policy makers need to sit down and ensure that we import food in such a way that we bring in more water,” Goswami said. “The world is no longer innocent of this virtual water trade.”

Disclaimer: This article has been adopted from the original article that appeared on the Bloomberg website. For more information and data, please read the original article and click on the urls.

From Flint, MI to Latur, India- How accountability can aid sustainable water management

Berlin-based Water Integrity Network (WIN) released a report in March on global water and sanitation status equivalent to the Panama Papers, wherein they allege that universal access to water and sanitation requires more transparency and accountability.

Clean, safe water will remain out of reach for more than a billion people and billions of investment dollars will be lost if government leaders, utilities, and investors do not stem corruption in the global water industry, says the report.

Awareness about the misconduct that affects

  • water delivery systems,
  • infrastructure projects, and
  • policy

has grown over the past decade, but there is little indication that levels of corruption have declined, the report found.

Moreover, corruption occurs at all levels of government and in private businesses. It can take many forms, from bribes paid to acquire water service, to lax enforcement of pollution laws, to the misuse of funds earmarked for water system improvements.

Children, women and poor are the most vulnerable groups when it comes to bearing the brunt of lack of transparency and inadequate water quantity and quality.

India has more than 300 million people, who lack access to potable water and sanitation services. The recent crisis in Latur, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, has caught everyone’s attention.  In the US, hundreds and thousands of children are prone to water borne diseases in the states of MI and NJ, all thanks to our aging infrastructure.

“A major area of concern is in the planning and construction of infrastructure, much of which is vitally needed to provide water services, irrigation and hydropower for millions of people,” says the author. “However, small- and large-scale projects alike require careful scrutiny in their planning and delivery. In some cases data has been misused to justify the construction of prestige projects that never achieve their aims or value for money. In other cases communities displaced by large-scale dams have been cheated out of their compensation. In a project in Pakistan, it is estimated that 80 per cent of compensation went to bogus owners.” In Nepal, a recent report stated that one year ago, the first of two massive earthquakes ripped through, killing more than 8,000 people. Some $4 billion of assistance was pledged to the rebuilding effort, but political gridlock and corruption have left the displaced survivors to largely fend for themselves. WASH is one of the prominent issues facing the effected population.

Some international development organizations and businesses have already taken steps to reduce corruption in the projects that they finance or construct.  To bridge the gap, the report offers three recommendations:

1. Coordinate and involve all branches of civil society, the private sector, legislators, regulators, the judicial system, and prominent political and institutional leaders to reform water governance and commit to reducing corruption.

2. Collect data on the extent of existing corruption, as well as on the economic and social consequences of that corruption.

3. Develop transparency, hold decision makers accountable, include all relevant parties in decisions about water projects, and strengthen laws and regulations against corruption.

“We now know what the issues are in relation to corruption in the water sector,” the report concludes. “These need to be addressed systematically, politically, professionally – and urgently. The time has come to act. We must no longer allow corruption to flourish and integrity to be undermined.”

This article has been adapted from the original article that was published in the circle of blue.

Water is Jobs on World Water Day 2016

#Waterisjobs: A women carrying water in rural India

#Waterisjobs: A women carrying water in rural India

The Hindus festival of colors, ‘Holi’ , coincided with the ‘World Water Day’ this year. The UN International Day of Forest was also celebrated yesterday with the theme, Forest and Water.  The event entitled “Forests and Water | Sustain Life and Livelihoods” being organized today, is to raise awareness of the interconnections between forests and water and their contributions to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In developing countries, such as India, women carry the lead role in the knowledge around quality, location, reliability and storage of local water resources. They are also tasked with the collection of wood and other materials from the forests for fuel to cook and bring light into their homes in the evenings. The role of women becomes important, especially in the off-grid Last Mile Communities (LMCs) and Base of Pyramid (BoP) populations.

On an average, women spend more time than men collecting, storing and protecting their water source. This takes their time away from the ability to learn, earn and contribute in other ways to their households and ultimately to their society. In just one day, 200 million work hours are consumed as women collect water for their families. This has graver consequences for the girl child, preventing many young girls from attending school or participating in other productive activities. Some women have to walk about 3 miles to collect water on average in not only the rural or desert states but also in the towns/urban slums. Collecting water can also be dangerous, especially for girls and women who live in war-stricken/conflict areas with the fears of abuse or attacks, making them more vulnerable.

My recollection of a woman’s struggle for clean water goes back to the time when I started working for Janhit Foundation in Meerut in 2003.  It continued until my last year of working in India in 2011, when I was working for WWF India’s Living Ganga Program under HSBC Climate Partnership. It still goes on as I keep reading about the grim situation of dwindling groundwater supply, polluted aquifers as well as poor watershed management in the developing countries. This results in the drudgery of women furthermore.

In towns like Meerut in Uttar Pradesh state of India, the day of a woman and/or girl in a household, starts with water and ends with water.  During my time at Janhit Foundation, we studied the Dabal Community, in an urban slum known as ‘Jai Bheem Nagar’. The findings were not only startling in terms of the public health havoc being played by the polluted water and dangerous surroundings but also heart breaking in terms of the exploitation of the women and girl child in the face of unavailability of potable water. They had to travel long distances everyday making the girls skip the school and spend the entire day carrying water load from the point source to their households so as to help their mothers. Local organizations, such as the NEER Foundation, are now bearing the torch to bring clean potable water to this community with the help of International nonprofits, such as water collective.

In the last days of my working in India, I went to work in the city of Kanpur in U.P. The situation remained grim there too, in terms of clean and safe water availability to the women and girl child. The industrial pollution is ubiquitous in Kanpur. This forces the women to rely on the daily municipal water supply. Where water is not available through a supply pipeline, the story repeats itself once again for the women and girl child.

In the United States, we have seen people, especially kids, in Flint, Newark, and likely other communities poisoned by lead because of an aging water infrastructure. In the desert Southwest and California, we face shrinking aquifers from years of drought and over withdrawals for agriculture and other uses. Along the East Coast, many communities, from Miami to Norfolk to New York, are at risk from the trifecta of devastating sea-level rise, storm surge, and subsidence that could put large swaths of these regions under water even longer than Hurricane Sandy did a few years ago.

Around the world, communities face similar problems and risks:

  • water too polluted for drinking or bathing,
  • children who die prematurely from water-borne diseases, and
  • entire regions in peril from either too much or too little water.

From Michigan to Mogadishu to Uttar Pradesh, we live in a world less prepared than ever to address the challenges of water contamination, scarcity, and flooding.

There is light at the end of tunnel though. The White House is hosting a Water Summit to mark the World Water Day 2016. As part of the event, a number of “commitments” to water are being made. One of the featured organizations, The Alliance for Global Water Adaptation (AGWA) is making two commitments, listed on the White House fact sheet.

March is an important month as there are so many international days of significance, including International Women’s Day, International Day of Forests and last but not the least ‘World Water Day’. The effort of ridding the women and society of this drudgery should be a conscious, collective and continuous effort, not to be left only to a day or two in the month of March but to be continued every day of the year. The efforts made by all the above organizations and many more shall go a long way in achieving this goal.

What does being ‘water stressed’ mean for India and her neighbours?



This is an update on my past posts on What Does International Cooperation in Water Management Really Mean and Peak Wate: The fracturing of the carrying capacity of water.

India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China rank in the top 50 of the world’s most water-stressed countries projected for 2040. Indian Water Portal’s data analysis shows the stress to the environment, economy, and people.

To read the full length article, please head over to India Water Portal.

India’s looming water crisis



This is an update on my original posts published in 2013 and 2015.

India’s Looming water crisis:

India needs to address current water management issues or face future catastrophe. Poor policies have left India in one of the worst positions in the world when it comes to water stress-writes Asit K Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada
India is no exception to this global trend. Signs of water stresses are all over the country, both in terms of availability and quality. The situation in India is worse than in many other countries due to decades of poor policies and practices. Sustained interest in water issues by senior policymakers has been conspicuous by its absence – Indian politicians are only interested in water when there are serious droughts and floods. As soon as these are over, their interest simply disappears. India needs water to meet its current needs, and also for 2050 when its population is predicted to increase by another 450 million, nearly one-third more than at present. All these additional people will need food, energy, industrial and economic development, proper health, education facilities and a good environment to enjoy a good quality of life, and meeting their needs will require increasingly more water.

Water vending machines: How equitable are they?

Girls getting water from ATM ©Sarvajal

Girls getting water from ATM ©Sarvajal

This is an update on the blog post that originally appeared on 07.31.2013

Water vending machines: How equitable are they?

Water ATMs have been in use in India for a decade but

  • Who are they helping?
  • Are they fulfilling their objective?
  • Are they providing safe and clean drinking water to the poor at a low cost?

A water ATM, as the name implies, is a sort of water vending machine similar to bank ATMs except that in a water ATM, money goes in to the machine in return for water. These machines, which run on a cash as well as a prepaid card or smart card system are built, owned and operated by private companies that have rights over public resources such as land and water. It is also not clear how much of groundwater a company can draw in a day.

Please head over to India Water Portal for the full story

Sponge Cities: What are those?

The 34 hectares urban storm water park in the city of Harbin in northern China is an example of successful Sponge City intervention. The storm water park provides multiple ecosystems services: it collects, cleanses and stores storm water and lets it infiltrate it into the aquifers. At the same time it protects and recovers the native natural habitats and provides an aesthetically appealing public space for recreational use. Photograph:

The 34 hectares urban storm water park in the city of Harbin in northern China is an example of successful Sponge City intervention. The storm water park provides multiple ecosystems services: it collects, cleanses and stores storm water and lets it infiltrate it into the aquifers. At the same time it protects and recovers the native natural habitats and provides an aesthetically appealing public space for recreational use. Photograph:

Sponge City: Is it another term on the growing list next to:

  • regenerative,
  • sustainable,
  • green,
  • eco,
  • resilient,
  • low-impact,
  • future proofing,
  • zero-carbon,
  • smart and so on?

What is a Sponge City?: A re-imagining of the urban environment, where almost every raindrop is captured, controlled and reused. The Sponge City indicates a particular type of city that does not act like an impermeable system, not allowing any water to filter through the ground, however more like a sponge, to actually absorb the rainwater. This water is then naturally filtered by the soil and allowed to reach into the urban aquifers. This allows for the extraction of water from the ground through urban or peri-urban wells. This water can be easily treated and used for the city water supply. This also contributes towards making the Green Spaces as Adaptive Measures to Flooding in the Face of Climate Change.

Sponge cities has actually gained a huge amount of support recently, especially in China. The Chinese government has already chosen 16 pilot cities and allocated to each of them between 400 and 600 million yuan for the implementation of innovative water management strategies that would gradually transform these cities into “Sponge Cities”.

Key issues the Sponge City wants to solve?

There are mainly five drivers of urban water crisis (population, rising middle class, climate change, tainted water, leaks) according to a recent book by Seth M. Siegel titled, Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World. The sponge cities work towards solving these crises by doing the following:

  • Less water available in urban and peri-urban areas. Since less rain water is allowed to filter through the urban soil, less water is available to be extracted from aquifers in urban and peri-urban areas.
  • Polluted water discharged into rivers or the sea. Much of rainwater mixed with wastewater is discharged untreated into rivers. The more impermeable the city is, the more water will be mixed with wastewater and will not be able to be treated but discharged directly into rivers.  This increases the level of pollution of local water bodies.
  • Degradation of urban ecosystems and green areas due to sprawling. This leads to a considerable loss of urban biodiversity, a drop in available green areas for natural ground filtration of storm water, a decrease in CO2 capture by plants, fewer spaces for natural cooling through urban green microclimates and generally less liveable, healthy, comfortable and attractive public spaces.
  • Increase in the intensity and frequency of urban flooding  As the absorbing capacity of the urban surface is decreased, storm flooding risk is increased. Flooding leads to increased groundwater pollution and has considerable impact in terms of damage to properties and health related issues. The most recent examples are the flooding incidences in the US and Chennai, the southern Indian capital city of the state of Tamilnadu in 2015.

Sponge City needs in practice:

A sponge cities needs to be abundant with spaces that allow water to seep through them.

  • Contiguous open green spaces, interconnected waterways, aquifers, channels and ponds across neighborhoods that can naturally detain and filter water as well as foster urban ecosystems, boost biodiversity and create cultural and recreational opportunities.
  • Green roofs that can retain rainwater and naturally filters it before it is recycled or released into the ground.
  • Porous design interventions across the city, including construction of bioswales and bioretention systems to detain run-off and allow for groundwater infiltration; porous roads and pavements that can safely accommodate car and pedestrian traffic while allowing water to be absorbed, permeate and recharge groundwater; drainage systems that allow trickling of water into the ground or that direct storm water run-off into green spaces for natural absorption
  • Water savings and recycling, including extending water recycling, particularly of grey water at the building block level, incentivize consumers to save water through increased tariffs for increase in consumption, raising awareness campaigns, and improved smart monitoring systems to identify leakages and inefficient use of water.

Benefits of a Sponge City:

The obvious short and long term benefits include:

  • More clean water for the city. Replenished groundwater and thus greater accessibility to water resources for the cities.
  • Cleaner groundwater due to the increased volume of naturally filtered storm water.
  • Reduction in flood risk as the city offers more permeable spaces for the natural retention and percolation of water.
  • Lower burdens on drainage systems, water treatment plant, artificial channels and natural streams.
  • Greener, healthier, more enjoyable urban spaces. Greener urban spaces improve quality of life, create more pleasant landscape aesthetics and recreational areas that are enjoyable and attract people.
  • Enriched biodiversity around green open spaces, wetlands, urban gardens and green rooftops
  • Solves the Twin Crises of Energy and Water Scarcity for most major and upcoming cities across the world.

Countries like India and the US should take a cue from China and learn from their experience for implementing the Sponge Cities.

Disclaimer: This article has been adopted from the original article that appeared in the Power to the People blog of World Future Council. All views and hyperlinks provided have been taken from my past posts and information available online. Please acknowledge the appropriate sources while citing.

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