It could not have come at a better (or worse) time. With water scarcity looming large as ambient temperatures soar in most of the densely populated south, a recent report warns that if water productivity is not enhanced the poor of the world will suffer the most. Aptly titled `Water: More Nutrition Per Drop', the report presented at the April 20 meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in New York warned that if the present food production trends continue, the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of undernourished people by the year 2015 will remain a dream. A team of well-known water experts including Prof Malin Falkenmark and Prof Jan Lundqvist of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) and Dr Frank Rijsberman of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) are the authors.

Expectedly, the report’s statistics and data present a gloomy scenario. Not without reason as 840 million people across the world are currently undernourished and some 2 billion could join them at the table in the next two decades. Pleading their case, the report argues that enhancing water productivity alongside influencing consumption patterns, unsustainable subsidies and restrictive trade policies may ensure meeting increasing and conflicting global food demand. But like bikini, what such reports hide is vital than what these global documents tend to reveal.

By suggesting that food imports may ensure food security in countries that are water scarce, the report may eventually favour the structural reform process unleashed by the World Bank and the IMF that aims to determine what a country in the south must grow! The Central American debt crisis of the 1980s was conveniently used to shift cropping pattern in these countries in favour of the supermarket shelves in the United States. Having replaced their staple crops with melons, berries and broccoli, the countries had to import food from the United States by eventually spending the dollars they earned through exports.

Though there might be justification in presenting the case of Egypt that had saved 11 cubic kilometres of water by importing 8.6 million tonnes of grains in 1995, spreading the logic of virtual water to conserve national waters may indeed make it contentious loaded as it is with the outcome of protecting food surplus of powerful countries. With global trade in food increasingly being on an uneven turf, countries of the south rightfully wonder if this will be yet another imposition on them! Else, why is 550 liters of water to produce flour for one loaf of bread of critical concern and not 7000 litres for producing 100 grams of beef?

Increasing irrigation efficiency may indeed be paramount, given the fact that 70 per cent of developed water resources are diverted for irrigated agriculture. But consider that 40 per cent of the world cereal output of 2.6 to 2.8 million tonnes is likely to end up as animal feed in 2025 while a sizeable human population that sustains at $ 2 a day will continue to remain underfed and undernourished. And if this is the justification to increase area under genetically modified crops in the developing countries from 4.3 to 63 million hectares then the question to ask is whether the report is serving hidden interests. But despite some of the contradictions, the authors painstakingly list the whole range of issues afflicting the food production sector as it relates to prevailing water scarcities with some telling recommendations. The report questions persistence of sectoral and supply oriented and wonders at the continued inertia to implement integrated approaches.

The authors couldn’t ignore the specific case of the billion-plus India that is increasingly becoming water scarce despite no apparent change in its annual receipt of 4000 billion cubic metres of precipitation. Currently, the country is producing grains at an average of 2.7 tonnes per hectare for which about 600 cubic kilometers of water is diverted for irrigation uses. But if the grain requirement of 2025 were to be met by sustaining the present production average, the country would need to double the current level of diversion for irrigation with the risks of environmental damage.

Undoubtedly, increasing irrigation efficiency holds the key to managing food demand, controlling food grain prices and increasing access to food.
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   (Stockholm International Water    Institute)
This seems to be the core argument in favour of US $ 120 billion interlinking of rivers proposal that promises to bring additional 34 million hectares under irrigation. However, the report presents an interesting alternate scenario that must merit the consideration of the proponents of the Interlinking project, the President and the Prime Minister. Says the report, “If grain yields increase by 70 per cent, no more increases in water diverted for irrigation will be required.’’ All that the country needs to do is to tone up its agricultural research system to match China’s current production average of 4.6 tonnes/ha.

Any savings at the farm will help meet the increasing urban and industrial demand, sustain the flow in rivers to maintain the minimum ecological services criteria and help contain salinisation and water-logging of productive lands. Further, increasing water productivity makes economic sense at the global food market too. While India exports grains at a productivity level of 0.34 kg per cubic metre of water, the United States does the same at 1.26 kg per cubic metre. At equal cost prices, this means that India is incurring significant ecological losses by exporting more water per unit of grains.

Undoubtedly, increasing irrigation efficiency holds the key to managing food demand, controlling food grain prices and increasing access to food. Israel's 75 per cent and Iraq's 45 per cent irrigation water use efficiency are examples worth emulating. However, it needs strong political commitment and a significant shift in the supply-side orientation of water managers. But forward looking politics goes side by side with recognising the value of peoples' wisdom and participation in developing strategies. This the report underplays, even as it acknowledges the inevitability of hydro-climatic realities.