India’s growing water footprint not sustainable, say experts

Controlling the global water footprint is an issue of concern and the Indian subcontinent, home to some of the most densely packed river basins in the world, is especially vulnerable, Neeta Lal reports.

cotton fields prod
India is one of the major producers of cotton, a crop that requires at least 10,000 litres to be able to produce a kilo, the amount required to produce a pair of jeans. Image: Shutterstock

As water becomes an increasingly scarce resource worldwide, with a staggering 750 million people lacking access to clean water, there is heightened concern over each country’s water footprint.

A nation’s water footprint, as opposed to its simple water use, is defined as the total amount of water needed for the production of goods and services calculated by adding all the water consumed plus the water inherent in products imported, then subtracted by the water in exports.

While India’s water footprint — 980 cubic meters per capita – ranks below the global average of 1,243 cubic meters, its 1.2 billion people collectively contribute to a significant 12 per cent of the world’s total water footprint. This number, say experts, is simply not sustainable and urgent measures need to be adopted by the government, corporates and citizens to optimally manage this fast dwindling precious resource.

The economic effects of mismanaging water resources are well-documented. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report forecasts longer periods of drought and heavier extreme rainfall. The United Nations has already reported that a raft of countries are teetering on the edge of their water limits even as they grapple with the challenge of augmenting food output by up to 100 per cent by 2050 to sustain the current global population growth.

For the third consecutive year, global water crisis has been identified as the third greatest risk in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk report.

India’s Planning Commission had established that the existing approach to water in Asia’s third largest economy threatens its GDP growth and political stability and had stressed that an urgent paradigm shift is required in the management of water resources.

If we continue to improve our quality of life in terms of the amount of goods that we consume, more and more people will be living with water scarcity

Ruth Mathews, director of the Water Footprint Network

India has four per cent of the world’s water which has to cater for 16 per cent of the world’s population, says a 2013 report Sustaining India’s Water Resources by the Carbon Disclosure Project. This requirement will, it states, lead to a steady shrinking of per-capita availability.

It is estimated that by 2020, India will become a water-scarce nation. Already, nearly 50 per cent of Indian villages do not have any source of protected drinking water.

The profile of the Indian agricultural sector, say experts, also contributes significantly to an increasing water footprint. The country is one of the world’s top producers of cotton, a crop that requires a substantial amount of water to cultivate.

For instance, cultivating just a kilo of cotton (the amount required to make one pair of jeans) requires 10,000 litres of water for growing, dyeing and washing, as against barley or quinoa that can get by with just 500 litres. In India, water is also pumped up for agricultural use at a higher rate than it can be replenished leading to levels of groundwater plummeting alarmingly.

“Indian farmers ought to reorient their thinking and cultivate crops that require less water but give higher yields helping fulfill the global goal of eliminating hunger,” says scientist Kirit Bhandare, formerly with Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. “A government-led sensitisation programme, in synergy with local panchayats, can usher in the desirable change through optimal utilisation of resources.”

Experts point out that the Indian subcontinent – which hosts some of the most densely packed river basins in the world – is especially vulnerable to a higher water footprint.

“The 450 million people living in the Ganga basin have to cope with severe water scarcity during five months of the year with water consumption exceeding 40 per cent of natural run off. Under such conditions, river flows and riverine ecosystems are heavily modified, water levels drop and competition over water starts affecting people’s lives,” writes environmentalist Arjen Y Hoekstra in an article.

In his book, The water footprint of a modern consumer society’, he proposes that nations can better manage and deploy their water resources by controlling their water footprint. Companies and governments, he adds, need to establish water footprint benchmarks for most water-intensive products like food, beverages, cotton and biofuels.

Companies respond to water challenges

Hearing the alarm bells, many companies have started actively identifying the problem and exploring ways to assess and whittle down their water footprint. In 2013, C&A, a European fashion retail company sourcing cotton from India, did a study comparing water footprint of organic as against conventional cotton in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

The conclusion was that water footprint of organic farming was significantly less due to minimal pollution in the water from the absence of pesticides.

Recently, the Tata conglomerate, one of India’s largest private enterprises, also did a water footprint assessment of its companies. The study provides a valuable insight into how strategies can be developed by the government and corporates to reduce their water footprint.

“In India, increasingly, corporate interests are overwhelming public or ecological interests led by a business-oriented political dispensation. Therefore, the actions of businesses are bound to have a significant impact on the scale and impact of water scarcity as well as on the development and implementation of potential solutions. However, studies prove that companies that are responding to water challenges are better in identifying profitable business opportunities,” explains Dr. Subodh Wagle, professor, Water Policy, Tata Institute of Social Studies, Mumbai.

Water footprint assessments, adds Wagle, will not only give companies more direction but also help nations leverage that information to avert the looming water crisis.

Ruth Mathews, director of the Water Footprint Network, which promotes sustainability and efficiency of water use, says that it’s time not just for big companies – many of which have already started calculating their water footprints – but also for individuals to be aware of the effects of their consumption.

“If we continue to improve our quality of life in terms of the amount of goods that we consume, more and more people will be living with water scarcity,” Mathews told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a recent interview.

Wagle feels that changes in individual consumer choices can be a game changer. “Each individual needs to reassess his/her consumer choices to see how more appropriate and sustainable ones can be made to reduce our water footprint. If you can do with four cotton shirts, why buy 10?”

To find a consistent way to measure one’s water footprint, the International Organization for Standardization has released a benchmark that it says will give organisations — from industry to government to NGOs — a framework for measuring the potential environmental impact of their water use and pollution.

ISO 14046, water footprint guidelines were developed by experts from around the world and are based on a lifecycle assessment. The standard aims to help assess the magnitude of potential environmental impacts related to water; identify ways to reduce those impacts and provide reliable information for reporting water footprint results that can be tracked over time.

Given the alarming situation, nations would do well to adhere to this template for the optimal management of a diminishing valuable resource.

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