India’s water is being exported as agri-exports; is there a solution

It is critical for us to adopt the circular water management model of treating and rejuvenating wastewater at source, along with efficient water management strategies to reduce water demand

By KAS Mani
Published: Thursday 15 July 2021
Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

India’s agricultural exports registered a growth of 17.34 per cent, garnering $41.25 billion in foreign exchange for 2020-21 despite the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. In rupee terms, this is equivalent to Rs 3.05 lakh crore. For a government faced with negative growth for over 15 months and limited financial inflows into its kitty, such numbers provide a sense of hope. 

The optics of improved agricultural exports assure relief, yet have their failings. This is because they deplete an equivalent amount of irrigation water permanently from the country’s resource base. 

India has witnessed a continued decline in its per capita water availability — by 60 per cent over the last 50 years because of increasing water use by the irrigation sector.

The improved agricultural exports for 2020-21 are equivalent to the annual drinking water needs of 1,500 villages with a population of 1,000. Agricultural exports reduce the imbalance in trade and earn hard currency while causing social, environmental fallouts, primarily for rural people.

Ashok Gulati, an agriculture economist, views the continuing agriculture export of crops like rice and sugarcane with deep concern. For him, the export of 17.7 million tonnes of rice and 7.5 million tonnes of sugar is the same as the export of 50.4 billion cubic metres (rice 35.4, sugar 15 billion cubic metres) of water by the current generation from the legitimate resource share of the future. Similarly, the water export numbers could be phenomenal if the captive water embedded in the export of vegetables, spices, flowers and horticulture is fully audited.

Virtual Water Trade (VWT) is slowly altering the global hydrological cycle in many ways. Several countries have begun to act early, adopting the VWT route to address worldwide water distress.

Water-guzzling activities are getting outsourced for production to other countries. Thus, crops, meat, leather, chemicals and industrial goods are imported to ensure a positive water balance. If the future wars will be about water, then the weaponisation is in using VWT.

‘Water Value’ is the mantra for positively altering the shortfalls through imports. Unfortunately, India has fallen for this bait and is getting increasingly entrapped into agricultural exports. Agri-export houses are earnestly exporting virtual water, especially groundwater, all for a dime.

Agricultural export, which is a proxy for the transfer of embedded water, has various dimensions. To begin with, the visible impact on a national scale remains unnoticed as a mere one to four per cent of the total water gets depleted per annum through the agri-exports route. However, this impact is significant enough to create an enormous imbalance at the local level in different regions where crops are grown. Globalisation of local water resources is thus operationalised covertly.

Importing water-intensive crops and products enables countries to balance their increasing water demand while exporting less water-intensive commodities. Improving the local water resource base is part of a long-term plan that has been adopted by several countries including Germany, France, Italy, the UK, Netherlands, the United States, China and Japan. Persian Gulf and North African countries are forced to import virtual water due to acute shortages.

Mexico imports maize and in doing so, it saves 12 billion cubic metres per year of its national water resources. Globally, the largest water exporters are the US, China, Australia, India, Pakistan, Brazil, Canada, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand.

Virtual water export is likely only to grow further in the future. Its impact on coming generations would be more catastrophic if corrective actions are not taken at the earliest. VWT, covering both export and import, is here to stay and cannot be avoided, just as oil import is accepted as critical for economic growth. 

VWT risks need to be integrated into the policy framework to help anticipate the concerns and design management practices, to help soften water footprint export volumes. While it will be impractical and idealistic to completely cut off the virtual water export of agri-crops or industrial products, it is essential to define the limits of VWT to safeguard the interests of future generations.

A sound VWT-related policy should address a number of salient points, including

  • Fix the upper limits of national VWT
  • List the products and regions that need to be excluded from it
  • Set the benchmark for water footprint for the different products
  • Specifications on water types to be used
  • Specification on water quality to be used
  • Water use efficiency norms for different products
  • Wastewater treatment and reuse

A national guideline needs to be designed to help map the volumes of water already lost from the hydrological cycle due to export and ways to offset the loss through improved management strategies:

  • Precision technology to be adopted to trail water use by export farms and industries
  • Water footprint estimation guidelines to be adopted by the different production systems
  • Regions barred for VWT export (groundwater overexploited zones / water quality concern / coastal seawater intrusion and other vulnerable zones)
  • Approaches to restoring and redistributing the virtual water lost for a positive water balance
  • Design ‘water renewal credit’ similar to ‘Carbon credit’
  • All export houses shall treat wastewater equivalent to the virtual water exported
  • ‘Water renewal credit’ to be acquired in advance to be eligible for export
  • ‘Water renewal credit’ shall adopt tertiary wastewater treatment technology prescribed by the pollution control board
  • ‘Water renewal credit’ is the first step to revive wastewater into productive use within the hydrologic cycle for irrigation / non-drinking use
  • ‘Water renewal credit’ overtime needs to be extended to bottling water plants, commercial water users, bulk water users involved with entertainment and sports

It will be no surprise if policymakers find it appropriate to import the bulk of food products as a strategic need to neutralise water deficits.

Implications of such a policy action on the farming community and the nation’s economic growth could be devastating. 

Mindful of such future challenges, it is critical to adopt the circular water management model of treating and rejuvenating wastewater at source combined with efficient water management strategies to reduce the water demand by at least 50 per cent to restore the balance by adopting the bottom-up approach.

VWT, presently not a concern for policymakers or technocrats, cannot go unaudited; else, the truth will emerge as a shock in the not-too-distant future.

It is crucial to anticipate and plan before the situation gets alarming.

No matter what we do from here on, we can never set right the previous wrongs. If we overlook this further, we forfeit the legitimacy to seek pardon from future generations.

KAS Mani is a water resources consultant with over four decades of experience largely with UN and other funding agencies

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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