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View from India: Does India need virtual water?

India is among the world’s largest unwitting exporters of Virtual Water, but the time has come when the nation needs water security. The situation needs to be understood by the fact that the Government of India could probably step in and create an accounting system for water usage across all states.

In India, agriculture is the largest employment provider. Water is essential for agriculture, but many of our rivers are drying up. Coupled with that, various factors like pollution compel us to look at water as an essential investment.

“Intervention in the form of investment is a prerequisite to produce food for everyone and generate employment. Technology can be used to create water sustenance and accessibility,” said Biksham Gujja, founder of AgSri, a social enterprise to promote sustainable agriculture practices in India, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. He was speaking at the LSE India Summit 2017 titled India @ 70.

When we look at the food supply chain, farmers manage the water, aided by the government. Farmers need to be oriented towards water conservation. Take the case of water-guzzling crops like sugarcane. Cane farmers have customarily been threatened by a declining water table and degradation of soil. Gujja is credited with developing and implementing a procedure that reduces water consumption and increases productivity. Described as the Sustainable Sugarcane Initiative (SSI), it’s an innovative agronomic system that uses less seed and raises seeds in a nursery. Planting methods too have been tweaked, where wide seed spacing and better water and nutrient management have resulted in increasing the cane yields by about 20 per cent.

Besides innovative methods of crop production, there are other aspects related to agriculture. In many states, farmers don’t have a proper income largely because of poor agricultural yield. It could also be the absence of water or a dependence on polluted water. “Around 70 per cent of Indian rivers are either dead or nearly dying. Hence it’s important to ensure that polluted water isn’t used for growing farm crops,” explained Manoj Misra, Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (YJA), a civil society consortium campaign dedicated to the restoration of rivers in general and the river Yamuna in particular. He added, “Our population is increasing so we need to safeguard our resources like water, and tap technology to reduce water wastage and channel its usage appropriately.”

This is where the private sector and investors should team up with the government of India (GoI) and create private-public partnerships (PPP) for water harvesting, management and storage, wherein GoI performs the role of a regulator. “An accounting system of water usage and dispersal is required,” said John Anthony (Tony) Allan, emeritus professor of geography at Kings College London. “Various Indian states should purchase water from government-initiated PPPs, store it and make it available to everyone in a regulated manner. This is required because India is a significant consumer of water and net exporter of food,” he added.

The situation is to be seen as an opportunity for positive disruption initiated through an out-of-a-box approach by think tanks and the government. “We need to perceive water as ‘virtual water’ in terms of quality, timing and space. More significantly, we need to look at the manner in which water is embedded in all what we do and how it impacts the ecosystem. Groundwater is probably the safest location and climate-resilient place to store water,” reasoned Gujja. Virtual water needs to be operational in terms of economics, livelihood and identity.

Deep water drivers include urban growth, climate change and geographical location, other than sanitation system and shift in the energy system. When you move up the value chain, water at the household level is a livelihood option, when seen at the village level, it’s all about accessibility and at the irrigation level it’s about availability and timing. Water connects to the ecological system and contributes to cleanliness and consequently progressive urbanisation. As creatures of habit we need to respect water, integral to our very existence.

India @ 70 was organised by LSE South Asia Centre and presented by Apollo Tyres Ltd. The event was held in Delhi last week and was webcast as well.

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