Chasing the mirage

Published : Nov 19, 2004 00:00 IST

On the bed of the Bharathapuzha in Kerala. The river, which once had a perennial supply of water, now goes dry immediately after the monsoon months. - K.K. MUSTAFAH

On the bed of the Bharathapuzha in Kerala. The river, which once had a perennial supply of water, now goes dry immediately after the monsoon months. - K.K. MUSTAFAH

Experts are looking at "virtual water trade" as a solution to the world's water crisis, but what will be its socio-economic implications for developing countries that are not self-sufficient in food?

ACCORDING to the World Water Development Report published by the United Nations, the most serious challenge of this century may not be war, hunger, disease or even the collapse of civic order, but the lack of fresh water. The Report foresees that the accelerating population growth, the exacerbating pollution and the change in climate will lead to a dramatic decline in water supply, resulting in hunger, disease and death, mostly in developing countries.

Already, over a third of the world's population experiences water scarcity. Over 1.1 billion people have no access to clean water and 2.4 billion live sans proper sanitation. In 1990, 20 nations were water-scarce. By 2025, the list will grow to 35. Between 1990 and 2025, the number of people living in countries where renewable water will be a scarce resource will rise from 131 million to somewhere between 817 million (under the U.N.'s low projection of population growth) and 1,079 million (under high projection levels). The Report's worst case scenario: By the middle of the century, seven billion people across 60 countries out of a world population of 9.3 billion may be facing water scarcity.

The pressure on water from various directions is rising rapidly. With the population soaring, world water consumption almost doubled in half a century. Between 1970 and 1990, the per capita water supply dropped by a third. Irrigating crops in hot, dry countries accounts for over 70 per cent of all the water used in the world.

Pollution exacerbates this pressure. About two million tonnes of waste is dumped every day into rivers, lakes and streams; one litre of waste water is sufficient to pollute about eight litres of fresh water. If pollution keeps pace with population growth, the world will in effect lose 18,000 cubic km of water by 2050 - almost nine times the volume all countries now use for irrigation.

Adding to the water stress is climate change, which U.N. scientists estimate will accelerate water scarcity by 20 per cent. Predictions are that while rainfall will get heavier in winter at higher latitudes, such as Britain and northern Europe, it will be weaker in many drought-prone countries and some tropical regions. The quality of water will worsen with rising pollution levels and temperatures.

India, it is predicted, will be among the countries so affected by 2050. India has experienced 23 major droughts from 1891 to 2003. About 33 per cent of the country's arable area (14 per cent of the total land area) is considered drought-prone.

Groundwater is being non-sustainably exploited, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

EXPERTS, hoarse with calling for efficient water use and management, are now looking for "virtual water trade" within and across countries as a solution to the impending water crisis.

"Virtual Water" (VW) is defined as the volume of water required to produce a commodity or service. Its genesis can be traced to Israel, which has pioneered many water conservation methods. By the mid-1980s, Israelis realised that it simply did not make sense from an economic perspective to export water-intensive oranges and avocados from their semi-arid and water-scarce country. So they stopped exporting such cash crops, which, in a sense, also meant that they stopped exporting water.

But it was Dr. Tony Allan of the King's College, London, who, in 1993, coined the term "virtual water". According to him, few people realise that one "eats" 1,000 to 10,000 litres of water every day, depending on one's diet. It takes 500 litres of water to produce enough wheat for a loaf of bread, about 3,000 litres to grow a kg of rice, and up to 10,000 litres for a kg of beef. So, for water-scarce countries it may be cheaper simply to buy the foodstuff instead of growing them at home and the water so saved can be effectively reallocated for more productive and profitable uses.

This is indeed already happening in some countries. For instance, in 2000, Egypt - a highly water-stressed country - imported eight million tonnes of grain from the United States, thereby saving some 8.5 billion cubic metres of water - one fifth of the annual releases from the Aswan High Dam. Japan, the world's biggest grain importer, would require an additional 30 billion cubic metres of water if it wanted to grow the country's annual cereal imports.

William J. Cosgrove, president, World Water Council, says: "Unconsciously, through food imports, many water-scarce countries have already eased tensions over their water problems, so that virtual water imports are already playing a role." Israel and Jordan have formulated policies to reduce or abandon the export of water-intensive products. Exports are largely limited to crops that yield a relatively high income per cubic metre of water consumed. Jordan, it is estimated, "imports" over 60 per cent of the water it requires through trade in VW.

HOWEVER, things are not so simple since international trade in farm products is entangled in a myriad of social, economic, environmental and political considerations. Prof. Frank Rijsberman, Chairman of the CGIAR Challenge Programme Steering Committee, wonders whether it is realistic to assume that countries will change trade policies because of a global water scarcity. Will the possible adverse effects of imports on national rural economies and food security be outweighed by the benefits of reduced pressure on water resources?

In fact, the impact of food trade on national water balances is rarely considered when agricultural trade policy is formulated. Japan imports food because of its comparative advantage in sectors other than agriculture and its limited farm land, rather than inadequate water resources.

A related issue is the size of export subsidies for agriculture in countries of the European Union and in the United States. The huge subsidies make their products cheap and affordable to importing countries, which may keep importing not because of the savings effected in domestic water. This would not only make importing countries - mostly developing countries - dependent on food imports but also create a destructive phenomenon as local products will not be able to compete with these imports, which will not reflect the real cost of production.

Many countries are, in fact, wary of dependence on imports to meet basic food needs. For China and India - with large, rising populations and increasing water problems - self-sufficiency in food is still a national priority. There is also the question whether the countries that will be hardest hit by water scarcity can afford "virtual water" imports. For example, nine out of the 10 countries that share the Nile basin are expected to face significant water scarcity by 2025. The Sub-Saharan region will face a 23 per cent shortfall in crop yields due to poor water supply. Under these conditions, hunger and malnutrition will rise, necessitating ever-greater dependence on international finance or food aid. Cereal imports will have to more than triple to 35 million tonnes in the region.

Also, virtual water trade cannot be sustained. For instance, India, which exported 161 billion cubic metres of virtual water between 1995 and 2000, is one of the top five net exporters of virtual water, and is said to be heading for some serious water shortages. A crucial and associated issue is also of developed or food exporting countries pushing genetically modified foodcrops onto the importers, mostly in the developing world.

RESEARCHERS from the International Water Management Institute, Colombo, and the Ratan Tata Trust Programme at Anand, Gujarat, have shown from a study of 131 countries that virtual water flows out of `water-poor' but `land-rich' countries to `water-rich'/`land-poor' countries. For example, India, Afghanistan, Malawi, Thailand and Denmark are close to the water-stress mark but are still the biggest virtual water exporters.

There are other crucial issues of VW trade that have to be considered mainly from the point of view of the importing countries:

* The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in its report "Global Water Outlook to 2025: Averting an Impending Crisis", points out that the developing countries will dramatically increase their reliance on food imports from 107 million tonnes in 1995 to 245 million tonnes in 2025. This would save 147 cubic km of water at 2025 water productivity levels, or 8 per cent of the total water consumption and 12 per cent of irrigation water used in developing countries in 2025.

* "A country must be food secure (self-sufficient) before any trade can begin. Can empty bellies attempt to trade, especially if the needs are sizable and `purchase power' is lacking?" asks M. Gopalakrishnan, Secretary-General, International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID), New Delhi. His question sums up the concerns of countries like India, where several forces and compulsions will determine whether virtual water trade is indeed a solution at all. Their socio-economic and other societal compulsions may not allow it.

* Virtual water trade as a policy option also has implications for local situations and people. As rightly pointed out in the discussion paper "Virtual Water Trade - Conscious Choices", by Paul van Hofwegen and Daniel Zimmer (August 2003), VW trade should contribute to local, national and regional food security, which requires not only appropriate trade agreements, which respect a nation's right to decide on food security measures, but also local distribution mechanisms ensuring access to food.

* When a country opts consciously for virtual water imports to alleviate its water problem, it is also choosing to alter its cropping patterns in a significant way. This could deprive farmers of their livelihoods unless alternatives are developed in terms of other crops or employment avenues. Else, this choice could have serious fallout, as rampant unemployment is a problem in most of the virtual water importing countries. According to Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma, director of the Delhi-based Ecological Foundation, the Punjab government is seeking Rs.1,280 crores from the Centre to wean away farmers from the traditional paddy-wheat cropping system, in order to save 14.7 billion cubic metres of water every year. The government's plan is to use this money to give farmers an incentive of Rs.12,500 a hectare, and relieve one million hectares under paddy-wheat rotation and raise commercial crops such as oilseeds on the land. Can changes in cropping patterns facilitate virtual water trade and ease the pressure on water resources in dryland? Many oilseed and fruit crops have high water efficiency - that is, they require less water but give higher returns. But how much land can be brought under dryland crops, given the market (domestic and international) potential of such crops? Also important is whether India can consciously shift to dry crops on a large scale, given its food security priorities.

Water experts such as Dr. A. Vaidyanathan, Professor Emiritus, Madras Institute of Development Studies, see the need first to manage efficiently the real water sources. Inefficient use of irrigation water leads to low water productivity (output per unit volume of water used) even in crops that have high water use efficiency.

Sunita Narain, Director, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), advocates water harvesting as an important tool to manage water scarcity. According to her, the problem is primarily with the National Water Policy, which remains inert and ineffectual because it is far removed from the two simple but important challenges of water management - rainwater harvesting and community management.

Virtual water trade is not as simple or elegant a solution as is made out to be. There is need for a detailed investigation on its social, economic, environmental and political implications.

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