The hidden story of India’s virtual water deficit

Export of water hungry products from a water deficit nation – does this ring a bell somewhere?

Dried rice

In July last year, India recorded a 11.64 % growth rate in its exports, the highest in the last two years – a clear indication of how the times of global recession are past, and how India is capitalizing on global fortunes. Apart from all the revenue, this brings in loads of opportunities in the form of employment, technological know-how and exposure to global markets. The physical and social infrastructure development mandated by industries is an added bonus. And one notable fact is that this increase in export percentage was not a single isolated occurrence of July, but a continuing trend – something that has probably become an identifier for a healthy economy.

All these are irrefutable claims indeed – but the other, rather, dark side of this glorious story of development and prosperity is a bit poorly comprehended and most often unknown, even to the literate. The exports occur in the form of readymade garments, fabrics, petroleum products, automobiles and a few other commodities. Agricultural exports consist primarily of fruits – fresh fruit and pulp too, with mangoes gaining prominence in the past few years.

Other significant agricultural exports are dairy products, eggs, rice, wheat and processed meat. Though all these have effectively contributed to India’s prominent position in the world trade, we seem to have compromised on a very basic attribute, i.e., sustainability. The fact is that most of these products are of high virtual water content! Virtual water is the water content of a product used for its manufacture, and may not be apparently visible on the finished product. For example, a cup of coffee is virtually 140 litres of water, while a single egg means 196 litres of water!

Rice is known to be a water intensive crop.

Rice, known to be a water intensive crop at production stage is one of our prime exports. Most of our other exports like mangoes, dairy products too are virtually rich in water. Another alarming trend is the growing trend of inclination towards cash crops like Sugarcane& cotton. To quote The Hindu’s P.Sainath, “an acre of Sugarcane crop requires as much water as 10-12 acres of crops like Jowar or 3000 rural households.” Even if it is for domestic use, does humanitarian ethics allow the substitution of food crops with such water hungry cash crops in a water deficit state like Maharashtra?

The market determined cropping pattern is yet another issue. Tamil Nadu, for example, has lost several varieties of traditional rice in the past few decades. Some of these are robust and require very minimal watering. Sadly, the market votes in favour of more luxurious, ‘in demand’ varieties. Alarmingly, the government doesn’t seem to be too interested in regulating the cultivation of water needy crops even in the wake of drying river beds and dismal ground water levels.

General awareness on traditional grain varieties and the virtual water concept is too low, and this also contributes to the woes of agriculture. With more than 65% of Indian farmers dependent on ground water and with free power aiding the extraction of the same, the truth behind the drastically falling ground water level across the country doesn’t seem to be too vague. Notably, our riverbeds too are drying up rapidly due to over use, with sand smuggling adding to the crisis.

MNCs like PepsiCo trying to get into contract farming across the nation for production of water-greedy potatoes is just another indication of what the nation is about to face. Curbing of free power for water greedy crops and higher tariffing of power and other resources for export oriented produce isn’t too difficult for the government to implement.

A dried up well

The same applies to the industrial sector too. The readymade garments sector, one of the prime livelihoods of several Indian towns, is a ferocious water consumer. Apart from consumption-exploitation, it has also rendered several rivers polluted and unfit for usage. This is exactly the case of the Noyyal river in Tamil Nadu, where industrial effluents from Tiruppur garment units have led to men and land turning infertile. The automobile industry, yet another growing sector, needs to be regulated in its growing stages. For example, manufacture of a single car requires around 1 lakh litres of virtual water. Stories of beverage industries getting into troubled waters due to local protests or excessive ground water exploitation aren’t new, either.

Export of water hungry products from a water deficit nation – does this ring a bell somewhere? With water being hyped as the reason for the next world war, where are we heading to? Jobs, opportunities, technology and trade are very valid reasons, but what about water? Is cheap labour the only reason for setting up of garments and other industries in developing countries, or is there a virtual water angle too? Is this not the right time to focus on water sovereignty? Subsidized exploitation of Indian resources by foreign players – should we really allow this to continue?

Sand smuggling affected dry river

A clear governmental policy on export pricing & production of water-rich crops and products is the need of the hour. Assistance on production and marketing of less water-intensive crops would help the Indian farmer, for whom crop failure due to the vagaries of monsoon happens season after season. Further, setting up of water needy industries needs to be reviewed – a compromise on the number, nature and location of such industries with the promised employment opportunities and revenue is very much achievable. Virtual water based trade with water deficit & water surplus nations needs to be promoted. Above all, careful consumption is necessary. People need to realize that every hamburger wasted is 2400 litres of water gone down the drain and it means much more than ‘just water’ to thousands of rural households.

Siddharth is an Electrical Engineer interested in travel, trekking, photography, environment, agriculture and related journalism. He loves nature and writes on deprivation, conservation more


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Siddharth is an Electrical Engineer interested in travel, trekking, photography, environment, agriculture and related journalism. He loves nature and writes on deprivation, conservation more

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  • revathy

    My name is D.Revathy. I am studying B.E Civil Engineering, 3rd year. Today I came to know about this virtual water.Yes Mr.Siddharth Ramana I agree with you. All the developing countries should implement this virtual water rule in their trading of goods with the developed countries. But what I think is that if the virtual water rule is implemented then all the developed countries like USA will get affected in their economy since they import virtual water rich commodities from developing countries like us to save their resources. More over still there are people who doesn’t know about this virtual water. It’s a great article. Thank you Mr.Siddharth Ramana.