Water, Down The Drain

Subsidies can lead to excess and waste. India is an export leader in water-intensive crops like rice and cotton due to subsidy-driven overproduction, aiming to provide low-cost grain. “Huge subsidies and wastage of food grains belie record exports and reckless use of India’s precious water patrimony,” argues Nayan Chanda, YaleGlobal editor, in his column for Businessworld. One study suggests India wastes as much wheat in a year as Australia uses during the same period. India’s leaders are in a bind as subsidized agriculture and power are depleting India’s groundwater supplies faster than they can be replenished. Chanda offers a reminder that India’s water tables hold about 4 percent of the global total to nourish citizens who represent more than 15 percent of the world population. India is poised to be the world’s largest population soon – and poor planning today could well threaten the nation’s water and food supplies in the next decade or two. – YaleGlobal

Water, Down The Drain

Poor management of India’s water reserves could endanger its food security
Nayan Chanda
Tuesday, April 30, 2013

India has emerged as the world’s largest exporter of rice and second-largest exporter of cotton. And that may not be such a great news after all. 

It is, of course, not a mean achievement for a nation that once faced widespread food riots and led a ship-to-mouth existence thanks to American food aid. But the means by which this feat has been achieved casts a shadow over the country’s long-term food security. Huge subsidies and wastage of food grains belie record exports and reckless use of India’s precious water patrimony. 

Ashok Gulati, chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, states the stark fact behind the decision to export: “The choice is very simple: either you bear a subsidy of $15-20 per tonne on exporting wheat or you bear a subsidy of almost $50 per tonne in carrying the wheat into the next season and thereafter in every season as granaries don’t have space.” He did not explain how the government reached this embarrassment of riches. The populist decision to supply cheap grain through the public distribution system by subsidising production and procurement encouraged farmers to grow grain rather than cash crops. The result has been overflowing warehouses. As of March, India’s grain storage was bursting with double the amount of food grains needed by the country. According to a British study, India wastes 21 million tonnes of wheat a year — equivalent to the total production of Australia.

While the budget deficit incurred in the process makes the Indian economy vulnerable, the wastage of food and water that goes to produce it endangers the future. The water that is being drawn in the main food-growing areas in north India to irrigate the fields is from the hard-to-replenish groundwater. Subsidised power that enables farmers to run their pumps for rice and wheat cultivation results in waste while continuously lowering the water table. In central Punjab, for instance, the water table has gone down more than 20 metres in the last decade, resulting in dry wells and higher energy cost for drawing water from greater depths.

In a 2009 paper, three scientists used Nasa’s specialised satellites to study groundwater and then ran simulations producing alarming conclusions. Thanks to deep water irrigation, in a six-year period (2002-2008) in Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana groundwater depletion amounted to a loss of 109 km3 of water, which is double the capacity of India’s largest surface-water reservoir. They warned: “If measures are not taken soon to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, the consequences for the 114,000,000 residents of the region may include a reduction of agricultural output and shortages of potable water, leading to extensive socioeconomic stresses.” It is safe to assume that the feat of 11.9 million tonnes rice export in 2011-13 was achieved at the expense of further depletion of groundwater. 

Only 3 per cent of water on earth is fresh, and only a third of it is in liquid form, mostly as groundwater. India’s water tables hold just 4.2 per cent of the global total to nourish its citizens who represent 17.5 per cent of the world population. Already 14.7 per cent of India’s groundwater is at a critical stage where extraction levels exceed recharge levels. Scientists estimate that at current trends of water usage, 60 per cent of groundwater sources will be in critical states of degradation within the next two decades. Yet , India is the world’s largest net exporter of what is called virtual water. Virtual water is real water embedded in goods — food grains to cotton — or water used to produce material goods — from shirts to shoes.

Unless India switches its exports to high-value, low-water crop and is prudent in its management of fast-depleting water resources, it will be endangering the country’s future food security. The glory of being the number one exporter of rice today may soon appear as cruel mockery. 


The author is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and editor of YaleGlobal Online.

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