India needs a water-sensitive food trade policy

If one lists the nations most suited to produce wheat, sugarcane, cotton and soybean, China and Egypt will definitely stand atop on historical, geographical and climatic counts. World’s largest river Nile flows in Egypt which every year collects fertile soil from different countries in Africa and deposits it in its delta. On the other side is the third largest river Yangtze, whose host country China has got not only enough water and soil, but the world’s largest Three Gorges Dam.

These merits should have made China and Egypt the largest food exporters of the world, but the facts are just the opposite. Egypt is the world’s second largest wheat importer and China, a champ in other exports, has become a major importer of food after 2000

One may wonder how come countries with most fertile land and sufficient water became importers of foodgrains, oil seeds and sugar. The answer lies in water that has changed the balance of global food trade.Agriculture consumes the highest quantity of water, which is why even the countries best suited to it, are importing farm products that consume massive quantity of water. This is called virtual water trade, which means that a country purchasing agricultural products from another is also indirectly purchasing the water that was used to produce them. Otherwise, they would have had to use their own water to produce that much of imported agri products.

California Drought Water School

Words like embedded water and water footprint are now part of the global trade lexicon on which a large number of studies are being carried out in the United States, China and India (at Bangalore’s CSIR).It requires 1,500 cubic meters of water to produce one tone of wheat, and 140 litres to produce a cup of coffee. Countries importing food grains and coffee are conserving their water for other needs. This virtual water is imported from countries where there is significant water for the crops. Egypt is an old player and China a new one on this modern trade, while India is a major exporter of virtual water in the world.Before coming to India let us have a look at Egypt’s interesting story.

The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) writes by merely throwing seeds in the Nile delta, Egypt got such bountiful crop that it became the largest grain supplier of the Roman Empire. However, the country changed its food policy after 1970 and limited foodgrain farming to save water. Presently, ships from Canada and Australia come to Egyptian ports and thus Egypt imports virtual water along with wheat imports.

According to a study by European Geosciences Union, virtual water trade in China began from 2001 when it started importing massive water consuming agri-products like food grains, soybeans, palm oil and poultry from Brazil and Argentina. China was the largest exporter of soybean till 1996, but now it is the largest component of its virtual water import. China exports low water consumption fruits and vegetable as well as processed food products to save on water.


Water shortage in India is not merely because of bad monsoon. Water is now a policy challenge. Several countries have started analysing water demand and supply in the context of agricultural, trade and industrial policies. India and China are the world’s biggest countries (in terms of population) and their water policies are the subject of global studies. Studies of Stockholm Water Institute and International Water Institute (available on the internet) show that China is managing its water resources better. Rainfall in India is 50 per cent higher than that in China, but India’s water resources are 67 per cent of those of China’s and per capita water availability is declining faster than that in China.

Looking at the exploitation of groundwater, river water and other water resources, India needs a comprehensive policy change on its water usage. This is essential because India hosts a massive virtual water trade at the domestic level, which involves the cultivation of crops like cotton, sugarcane and paddy in low rainfall areas of north-west and their supply to eastern states.

The 2016 drought has come with a warning to urgently initiate major fundamental policy changes on water usage.

Now is the time for water mapping of crops in India, so that the water footprint or the level of consumption of water by different crops can be estimated. Now farming should not be done on the basis of traditional areas of crops, but on the basis of water footprint. The soybean will not be cultivated in Madhya Pradesh, but Assam and sugarcane will not be grown in Maharashtra or western Uttar Pradesh but in Bihar and Bengal.

India has to change its food import and export policy also. We import pulses and export sugar while we should have been doing just the vice-versa. Keeping in view India’s vastness and regional availability of water we need different food import policies for eastern and western coast. Under this policy, western India might have to increase its dependence on imported food to balance virtual water trade among states.

Except in deserts, conservation of water is not part of India’s cultural habit. As drought is spreading is tentacles, not only Gujarat, Rajasthan and Budelkhand but also Doab, Delta and terai  (foothills of Himalyas) areas are also struggling with water shortage. Before water vaporises from our lives, we will have to review the relationship of farming with water because we have already got enough water supply as much as nature could provide us. This, in no way, can be increased.

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