Time to promote virtual water measures

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Oct 15 2005, 05:52am hrs
The draft report titled Indias Water Economy from the World Bank is indeed timely, as it might draw attention from all stakeholders to avert the impending crisis. Despite its impressive account of the state of our water economy and its management, it appears to have fallen short of expectations in the quality of its conclusions and recommendations. The main criticism appears to be from social activists and environmentalists, who find the agenda for privatisation dominating objectivity.

The report comes in the midst of the unseemly controversy surrounding Delhi Jal Boards privatisation plan. And the fears that the global water MNCs would indeed create enclosures of the water commons, thus, marginalising and depriving poorer sections in our society.

The report has many suggestions and a cliched set of rules, but many aspects of conservation have not been highlighted sufficiently. In this context, policy makers in India may consider the merits of starting a campaign on virtual water (VW), even if this is not a central issue for the World Bank report. VW is the amount of water that is embedded in various products that are produced or consumed. Thus, one could compare these products not only by their price and nutrition, but also on the lines of the amount of VW each implies. For instance, rice is equivalent to 2,700 litre of water per kilogramme, compared to 450 lw/kg for maize.

The idea of virtual water, coined in 1993, has been discussed mainly in the context of trade and food security. But it can be expanded as a conservation strategy. The World Water Council states: Showing people the virtual water content of various consumption routes will increase the water awareness of people. The total water footprint of a nation is a useful indicator of a nations call on the global water resources. At a consumers level, it is useful to show peoples individual footprint as a function of food diet and consumption patterns.

It is useful to show individuals the resource impact of what they consume
Such concepts enable better policy choices to optimise water usage
Countries, such as Israel and Egypt, have scarce fresh water. While countries, such as the US, which have abundant per capita fresh water, are not too concerned with the VW implicit in their exports. Some water-scarce countries have integrated VW trade into their water and export-import policies. Jordan, for instance, imports 60% of its requirement through virtual water. The top five countries which are net importers of VW are Sri Lanka, Japan, the Nether-lands, Korea and China. The top five net exporters are the US, Canada, Thail-and, Argentina and India.

A VW import policy may not be of relevance to India at all due to understandable adverse socio-economic implications, such as unemployment. However, VW considerations can be integrated into policies and practices in three areas. First, VW may become an additional consideration in determining our export thrusts. Should we export rice, wheat and onions How did we end up as the fifth-largest VW exporter, despite the water crises that loom so large over here

Second, the concept can be useful in making agricultural choices within the country among various states so as to optimise water usage. It is distressing to see farmers in arid regions growing paddy or commercial crops, using groundwater stuck at about 600 feet depth and drawing upon free/ subsidised power. VW will give the state governments a better basis to incentivise agricultural patterns and educate and influence farmers.

Third, the public could be made aware of this concept, so that they make appropriate consumption choices that would conserve water. For instance, as per the UNs Food and Agriculture Organisation, a kilo of poultry meat implies a VW of 6 cubic metres, while one kilo of cereals has a VW of 1.5 cubic meters. Put in another way, when one consumes one kilo of chicken, it is equivalent to about 2,800 litre of water needed to produce it. The VW of rice is many times that of maize. Vegetarians consume far less VW than non-vegetarians.

Of course, VW, as a viable policy practice, is still at a nascent stage. Further research is required on establishing its linkages with domestic trade, nutrition and socio-economic implications. Indian policy makers must take the lead and actively promote research on VW accounting, reporting and integration in decision-makingand launch an advocacy mission soon.