Relation between Agri exports and water stress – Explained, Pointwise


Central Water Commission of India has reported that about 78% of water consumption in India is done by the agricultural sector. For 2020-21, India registered a growth of 17.34 percent in agricultural exports. But, we failed to look beyond the growth in agricultural exports.

Agricultural exports deplete an equivalent amount of irrigation water permanently from the country’s resource base. So, it is important for regulating water in Agricultural exports. So, It is critical for us to adopt the circular water management model of treating and rejuvenating wastewater at the source to reduce water demand.

Agricultural exports and water stress

India’s agricultural exports registered a growth of 17.34 percent, garnering $41.25 billion in foreign exchange for 2020-21, despite the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

For instance, 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. So, the 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 meters of water by the current generation from the legitimate resource share of the future.

What is Virtual Water Trade (VWT)?

The virtual water trade is the idea that when goods and services are exchanged, so is virtual water. When a country imports one tonne of wheat instead of producing it domestically, it is saving about 1,300 cubic meters of real indigenous water.

Virtual Water Trade at the global level

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.

For instance, 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. For example, Mexico imports maize and in doing so, it saves 12 billion cubic meters 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.

The situation in India:

  • 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.
  • India has witnessed a continued decline in its per capita water availability — by 60 percent over the last 50 years because of increasing water use by the irrigation sector and India’s agricultural exports.
Why agricultural export is used as a proxy for the transfer of embedded water?
  1. Remains unnoticed from the exporting country: The visible impact on a national scale remains unnoticed, as a mere one to four percent 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
  2. Countries generally import water-intensive crops and products and balance this import by exporting less water-intensive commodities. 
  3. Generates revenue for exporting nation: Exporting countries view the exports as a revenue-generating one and the way to boost farmer’s income in their country. But in the long run, the result is the opposite.
Why does India need to pay attention to Virtual Water Trade?
  • 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.
  • Virtual Water Trade 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. The policy should include,
    • Fix the upper limits of national VWT
    • List the products and regions that need to be excluded from it
    • Specifications on water types to be used
    • 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
    • Design ‘water renewal credit’ similar to ‘Carbon credit’
      • ‘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
      • In the future, ‘Water renewal credit’ to be acquired in advance to be eligible for export
    • All export houses shall treat wastewater equivalent to the virtual water exported

With 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 percent to restore the balance by adopting the bottom-up approach.

Source: Down To Earth

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