Virtual Water Trade

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.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.

Virtual Water Trade: Indian Situation

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Central Water Commission of India has reported that about 78% of water consumption in India is done by the agricultural sector.
  • Ashok Gulati, an agriculture economist, views the continuing agriculture export of crops like rice and sugarcane with deep concern.
    • According to 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.

Virtual Water Trade: Role of agriculture exports

  • One to four percent of total water available per year gets depleted through agri-exports route.
    • The visible impact remains unnoticed but it is equivalent to meeting annual drinking water needs of 1500 villages with population of 1000.
    • Therefore the impact is significant to create water imbalance at local level.
  • Countries generally import water-intensive crops and products and balance this import by exporting less water-intensive commodities.
  • 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.
  • Agricultural exports deplete an equivalent amount of irrigation water permanently from the country’s resource base.  It is critical for us to adopt the circular water management model of treating and rejuvenating wastewater at the source to reduce water demand.

Virtual Water Trade: Way ahead

  • 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 virtual water trade
    • 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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