Virtual water export


Shabbir Ahmed
PAKISTAN’S water crisis has been in the making for a long time. The natural instinct is to blame the situation on climate change. While that has certainly played a role, however, Pakistan’s current water crisis is largely a man-made disaster. In theory, Pakistan receives enough rain every year to meet the needs of its population. But too much water is wasted, thanks to inefficiency and misuse. Decades of indiscriminate groundwater extraction by the industrial, urban and agricultural sectors, rampant pollution and encroachment of rivers and other water bodies, unpredictable monsoon patterns, dismal water infrastructure and other factors have brought most parts of the country to the brink of acute water scarcity or stress. A recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has ranked Pakistan third among the countries facing acute water shortage. Furthermore, Pakistan Council Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) has warned that Pakistan may run out of water by 2025. A report by the World Economic Report regarded the water crisis as the biggest threat to Pakistan.
As the government and public have finally woken up to the dire situation in the country, the international community also needs to recognise the global implications of the water crisis in Pakistan and many other parts of the world. One such aspect is that of ‘virtual water’, which tends to get ignored in the discourses that surround water insecurity. Virtual water trade refers to the hidden flow of water if food or other commodities are traded from one place to another.Today, Pakistan is among the largest exporters of virtual water, thanks mainly to its burgeoning agricultural exports. Since Pakistan is now on the path of expanding its manufacturing base, the water crisis is most likely to deteriorate, unless a roadmap is built that addresses these concerns head on. Virtual water has major impact on global trade policy, especially in water-scarce regions. When goods and services are traded among nations, not only a commodity is traded but virtual water, too, is traded. For instance, when a country imports one tonne of wheat instead of producing it domestically, it imports hundreds of litres of water as well, thus saving the same amount of local water.
Water is a global good, linked heavily to international trade with global implications, but that is not to say Pakistan’s water crisis is caused entirely by international factors or that it should curb exports. However, steps must be taken at the national level to deal with the increasing water demand across sectors and societies; the nexus between water, food, energy, climate and trade; and growing intensity of water-related disasters in the country. Internationally, if countries, especially the developed ones – the water footprint of whose consumers is overwhelmingly outside their respective territories – are serious about achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – of which one is water – a concerted effort needs to be made to mainstream global water crisis into their domestic and foreign policies (including trade) too. Furthermore, water needs to be at the centre of climate change adaptation, which in turn turns the spotlight on the need for intensifying mobilisation of finances and technologies for securing water resources. One of the viable solutions is that Pakistan may have to shift its focus from water-intensive crops and manufacturing in order to stop the export of virtual water. But it is not as simple as it sounds. Pakistan uses almost twice the amount of water to grow crops as compared to some of the developed countries. There are two main reasons for this. First, power subsidies for agriculture have played a major role in the decline of water levels. Second, it has been observed that even though Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) are currently announced for several crops, the most effective price support is for sugarcane, wheat and rice. This creates highly skewed incentive structures in favour of these water intensive crops.
Pakistan’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water drawn but contributes only 18 percent to the country’s GDP. The agricultural shift by profit-motivated young farmers has made things worse. Farmers who once grew millet, sorghum and other cereals have turned to sugarcane, which fetches more money but is a water intensive crop. Likewise, farmers have also taken to growing rice and wheat which are thirsty crops. Since sugar, wheat and rice are some of the major agricultural exports of Pakistan, therefore the concept of virtual water comes into play here. A 2017 research published in Nature, a scientific journal, claimed that Pakistan was the largest groundwater exporter with 7.3 billion cubic meters back in 2010. Without government intervention to reset the revenue balance in favour of other, less water-intensive crops, experts warn the sustained production of thirsty crops will further deplete scarce water resources. The government currently asks farmers to shift to less water consuming crops, but it does little to support such a change. Erratic prices for vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses limit the incentives for farmers to plant them.
Proper management and use of water is important to save water. Government needs to provide incentives to farmers for growing less water intensive crops. The flow of virtual water should be regulated, and domestic usage should be given priority. Farmers should adopt the right methods of irrigation and apply water in an efficient way. New water reservoirs and dams should be made for water storing and avoid flooding and drought problems. Control of the water footprint could be achieved by import/export regulations, by adequate pricing of domestic water and enforcing water using technology standards. Water is an essential component of our lives and is at the centre of economic and social development. A Judgment by the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2018 gave a detailed account of the water crisis in Pakistan and suggested some remedial measures. In the judgement there is a quotation from W.H. Auden that says: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water!”.
— The writer is freelance columnist.