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Embedded Water and virtual water trade drying up Indian agriculture

July 25, 2016
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.

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