Challenges of embedded water
By exporting tons of agricultural produce, India is sacrificing its fresh water reserve.
The requirement of water to produce few selected food items like rice (husked), beef, wheat and tea in India is 3702, 16482,1654 and 7002 cubic metres per ton respectively. However, it varies depending on the country and the varieties cultivated. India is the largest exporter of rice and the third largest exporter of beef in the world. In 2016-17, India exported 10.3 million MT of rice (China was the largest importer with five million MT of rice). Thus, along with rice, India also exported 381.30 billion cubic metres of embedded water. In 2016, India exported 1.56 million tons of beef. In turn, exporting 25.71 billion cubic meters of embedded water along with the beef!
The energy and water intensive agriculture practices, followed since the 1950s, have already caused severe damage to the ecology through an indiscriminate use of fossil fuel based chemical fertilisers and underground water. Thus, both air and water have been contaminated. Eventually, these two common properties, available for free since the advent of human civilisation, have been turned into economic goods.
Water scarcity has emerged as one of the prime economic and environmental issues of this century. The Stockholm International Water Institute has calculated that more than 1.4 billion people live in closed basins where existing water cannot meet the society's agricultural, industrial, municipal and environmental needs. The World Bank and the Government of China have estimated, for instance, that more than 54 per cent of water in the seven prime rivers of China has become unusable because of pollution.
A team of hydrologists of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt has found that northern India's underground water supply was being pumped and consumed by human activities, such as irrigating cropland. According to them, between 2002 and 2008, more than 108 cubic km of groundwater has disappeared from aquifers in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Delhi. Rapid urbanisation, especially after the green revolution, has also increased domestic and industrial demand for water.
In 2008, the global water market was estimated at $316 billion and transactions in the Asian market, the fastest growing water market in the world, were around $120 billion in a year. In 2016, the global water and wastewater treatment market size was valued at USD 478.15 billion and, it is expected to reach USD 674.72 billion by 2025.
Expecting a high return from this fast-growing market, huge private investments are being made by large corporations across the world in various water projects. The industry was propelled by the enactment of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in 1995, which seeks to enhance the power of transnational corporations over governments (national, state and local) and reduce their scope in providing basic human services such as health, education and water.
In as early as 2002, the European Union had first opened the discussion on foreign participation for water distribution in developing countries. Then, in 2005, during negotiations on GATS under the WTO Doha Development Round, they proposed that, in exchange for access to the water markets, developing and least developed countries (LDCs) would receive access to the desired western markets. Simply, it means that the developing countries would get market access of their agricultural products in the EU on the condition that they (developing countries) open their water sector to the water TNCs.
In 1999, the privatisation of municipal water and sanitation company SEMAPA, in Cochabamba—Bolivia's third-largest city, was a glaring example of corporate dominance over the governments on the supply of vital necessitates like water. Considering the huge growth potential of the water market, several energy utilities have diversified into water utilities.
Few major transnational water utilities dominating the market are GE Water & Process Technologies, 3M Purification, Calgon Carbon, Aqua Tech International, Danaher, GDF SUEZ, Degremont, Veolia Water Solutions & Technologies, and Siemens.
The virtual water trade
In addition to the 'real' water market, there exists, though somewhat dormant at present, a large market of 'virtual water'. Virtual/embedded water is the amount of water used in the production of food, energy and other products. If a country decides to rely more on imported food, it can save an enormous amount of its own water which would have otherwise been used for cultivation. For example, to produce one ton of wheat, say, 1654 cubic meters of water is required. Thus, if India exports one ton of wheat then there is a virtual flow of 1654 cubic meters of water from India to the importing country and the importer saves nearly the same quantity of water.
Large parts of North and South America, Australia, South Asia, and Central Africa are net exporters of virtual water. Most of Europe, Japan, North and South Africa, the Middle East, Mexico, and Indonesia, in contrast, are net importers of virtual water. It has been claimed that one solution to water scarcity involves the accounting of virtual water while designing the global trade policy. Suggestions have been made to set-up a 'virtual water-trading council', under the World Trade Organisation (WTO), to help 'manage both real and virtual water resources for the world's booming population'.
The EU has taken a conscious decision to save their scarce water resources by shifting the burden of cultivation to developing countries. The water import dependence (WID) data of few major economies of Europe will corroborate this observation. WID is the ratio between the water footprint of a country's import and its total water footprints (water footprint is the volume of water used to produce goods and services, including imports that people consume). The higher the ratio, the more a country depends on outside water sources.
During 1997-2001, the WID of the Netherlands, UK, Germany, Italy France and Spain were (in per cent) 82, 70, 53, 51, 37 and 36 respectively. The corresponding figures for India, Bangladesh, China, and Brazil are (in per cent) 2, 3, 7 and 8. Thus, during 1997-2001, the Netherlands could reduce, through imports, the country's total water footprints by 82 per cent compared to India's 2 per cent! In simple language, this means that the Netherlands had mostly imported water-intensive products and India imported products which were generally not water intensive.
Export of agricultural products not only deprives India's malnourished population of food, it also transfers huge quantities of embedded water from rural India to the importing countries. India is already facing a serious burden of under-nutrition. The Global Nutrition Report 2017 shows that more than half the women of reproductive age in the country suffer from anaemia. The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2017 ranked India 97th out of 118 countries with a serious hunger situation.
In the future, importing northern nations might ask for water labels to guarantee that only pure (and preferably from renewable sources) water is used in the production of exported food items. By discouraging the use of arsenic and lead contaminated underground water in cultivation and animal husbandry, water labels will ensure the safety of their imported food.
In such a scenario, which is very likely, the organic food exporters of India, targeting the developed country markets, will increasingly rely on renewable natural water sources for cultivation. Funds will be diverted to develop water bodies to serve that purpose. And, the food processing plants will collaborate with the major water utilities of those importing developed countries to guarantee that the water purification level, as specified in the water standard, is maintained.
While the citizens of the importing countries of the north would consume green products, a large number of Indians would lose their basic rights on water. The state of the already polluted water sources, which cater to the needs of the unprivileged sections of the local population, will be further deteriorated. The existing dualism in the production and consumption of food and water will widen further.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)