Water resources across the globe are not evenly distributed, some regions, such as the Middle East, are highly water-scarce while other regions, such as Latin America, North America, South East Asia and parts of Africa, are well endowed with water. In this backdrop, it is possible for a water-scarce region such as the Middle East to strategically trade its way out of its water deficit by importing water-intensive crops, such as wheat or rice, from water abundant regions, instead of attempting to grow them locally amidst water scarcity. It would be interesting to note that around 160 out of 210 national economies worldwide are ‘net virtual water importers’ due to inflow of water intensive products. The major ‘net water exporting’ economies, such as countries in North America, Latin America, Australia and Asia, are in well-endowed hydrological regions, with the additional advantage of sound infrastructure to enable trade with other economies. India, with its huge populace, is facing a unique challenge of serving 17% of the world population with only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources. It is estimated that about 2 lakhs people die every year due to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene in India. In 2016, per person disease burden due to unsafe water and sanitation was 40 times higher in India than in China and 12 times higher than in Sri Lanka. Virtual water footprint mapping for exports can be used to find sectors which are exporting embedded water or hidden water with its product. Efforts can be made to minimize the virtual water export from water stressed areas so that overall benefits can be shared uniformly by all stakeholders.
A water-scarce country should not export products that require a lot of water in their production (export of virtual water) to relieve pressure on its own resources. At present, nearly 820 million people in 12 major river basins of India are facing high to extreme water stress situation. The scarcity of water resources has many cascading effects including desertification, risk to biodiversity, industry, energy sector and risk of exceeding carrying capacity of urban hubs.
The Dublin Conference of 1992 highlighted issues of scarcity of water and recommended to treat it as an economic good. Water should be examined from supply and demand sides separately. The water footprint concept draws extensively from fundamental sciences of meteorology, plant physiology, soil sciences and agronomy to find a means of measurement. Water should be seen not only as a natural resource but also as economic and social good (Dr Amit Kar, 2016).
On the mining front, water footprint of a mine can be gauged using a tool called WaterMiner, which was developed by the Centre for Water in the Minerals Industry (CWiMI) at the University of Queensland. As per reports, this tool has been used successfully in South Africa. WaterMiner has a good application on modelling water use. The results can be applied for improving water management on site. The user provides the program with flow rates between imports, exports, tasks, water stores and treatment plants. The tool calculates the volume of water imported, exported, recycled and re-used.
Water finds application not only in the processes but also in logistics. Though most of coal transportation in California is on railways, there are other means which are used like barge, truck, conveyor belts, and coal slurry pipelines. Coal slurry pipelines transport coal over long distances and require water mixed with coal with a certain ratio for making coal slurry transportable through pipes (James, 2011). Domestic trade data are collected in the Commodity Flow Survey (CFS), conducted every five years in coordination with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). For industrial goods, the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) data provides the same level of resolution as the water footprint factors mentioned above, allowing one to map domestic virtual water flows on a per-dollar basis (Julian Fulton et al, 2019).
Quantity of water should be translated into a measure of the resulting stress on water resources and these impacts should be properly allocated among the many co products of fuel production systems. In case of Canada, most of these virtual water exports go to the United States and represent as huge environmental cost that is not reflected in the pricing of these commodities and not reflected in the calculations of the costs and benefits of the free trade. The so-called NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) benefits claimed by some industries and sectors come at the expense of Canada fresh water heritage (Corinne D. Scown et al, 2011; Nabeela, 2011).
Virtual water flows in the energy sector in China are characterized by virtual water being transferred from the water scarce north to large cities in the form of coal-fired electricity. China is managing its water resources through water quotas, improvements in water efficiency, and policies to control pollution. In addition, much of China’s water use is exported virtually through ‘Made in China’ goods. Beyond this, we believe China could manage its water by optimizing its economic mix, importing more water-intensive products, and matching local water resources to output by shifting the production bases of certain products (Erik Olsson, 2015; Wai Shin Chan, 2015).
Australian company Virtual Curtain Limited is treating a variety of mining and industrial wastewaters in Australia and China using the CSIRO-developed Virtual Curtain technology. Developed over a number of years, this patented technology relies on the in-situ formation of a mineral known as a hydrotalcite, which can simultaneously incorporate a range of contaminants into its structure. Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) recognized the vital role of water in mining both as an asset that produces value and as a shared natural resource by developing water accounting framework.
Many of the policy prescriptions based on virtual water would impose production and trading regimes on firms or countries, to achieve some notion of global equity with respect to water consumption, or to minimize the ‘global water footprint’, without considering local and regional preferences, opportunities, and constraints.
Asian countries — especially China and India — are ranked among the top three largest producers of most non-fuel minerals. Many regions of China and India are water stressed and competition over water resources in these areas will increase in future. Reduction in per capita availability over the years (5177 cubic metres in 1950 to approximately 1400 cubic metres now) has forced every new policy to change the way it has approached its management. In 2017, the state government of Kerala, India, facing a severe drought, restricted PepsiCo’s groundwater consumption by 75 per cent. Quota for water has already started with December 2015 notification on thermal power plant where old plants could use 3.5 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour and those installed after January 1, 2017 could use 2.5 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour.
There are some good examples of water management in the country. Western Coalfields Limited (WCL) of Coal India Ltd initiatives towards “Coal Neer” and recharging nearby aquifers are noteworthy. Tata Steel bringing down its specific water consumption from 7.1 m3/t in 2002-03 to 3.5 m3/t of crude steel production in 2018-19 is another example of constantly addressing the water issue. Many other mining and metal companies have also taken measures towards zero discharge. Underground mining operation in India is interesting where miners pump out water for winning the coal and then pump water back for stowing purpose.
Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees to all persons a fundamental right to life. As the Supreme Court observed that right to life is not confined to mere animal existence but extends to the right to live with basic human dignity. The Supreme Court while dealing with Article 21 of the Constitution has held that the need for a decent and civilized life includes the right to food, water and a decent environment.
India is water stressed region and some states are facing acute water scarcity. With growing population resulting in food demand, industrialization with high intake of water, India has to look seriously on export of virtual water. In India, mapping of water is being done by few industries and virtual water is mapped. As the Government of India has come out with PAT scheme for energy, it should also bring some scheme for water where industry can be incentivized for improvement. This will also help in base line data collection of all sectors of industry.
India as such is placed as 13 extremely water stressed country and water availability in India is not uniform. There are many states which are facing water scarcity and there are many cities which are headed for zero day. Classic example is Bengaluru which is the Silicon Valley of India. India needs to produce food at reasonable cost to feed its burgeoning population, continue growing at higher GDP to provide gainful employment to its young population, fast track its efforts to meet SDG 6 for clean water and sanitation for all. Policy making in India on water needs to include sustainability, equity, efficiency, innovation and virtual water export.
It reminds me of a famous quote of Noah Seathl, Chief Seattle of 1854 where he said, “The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The waters murmur in the voice of my father’s father. The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So, you must give to the river the kindness you would give any brother.”
The author is Co-Chair, FICCI Mining Committee and Chief Regulatory Affairs, Tata Steel Ltd