The Tap's Running Dry

India needs to work fast to save its rivers; otherwise the Ganga and Yamuna could soon pass into mythology

Published: Jun 29, 2010
The Tap's Running Dry
Image: ed_darack / Corbis
BORROWED TIME Regardless of long the glaciers will take to vanish, the damage has already begun

For India, China, Nepal and Bangladesh, the availability of water and dependence on the monsoon is central to the problem of food security. Huge tracts of farming regions in all four countries are fed by rivers that have a common source — the Himalayan glaciers. It is this common thread that now has India and its three neighbours facing a possibly much more serious food security crisis than the present one; something that can push inflation to levels that will make the present rate deem manageable.

This is one of the conclusions of the think tank Strategic Foresight Group in its to-be-launched study titled The Himalayan Challenge, Water Security in Emerging Asia. “We do not want to be alarmist. We are not saying that the glaciers will vanish in another 30 or 50 years. In fact, that might take up to 700 years. But the process of melting has started and the impact is starting to show,” says the group’s president, Sundeep Waslekar.

By 2050, says the study, a lethal mix of this glacial melting along with water scarcity and disruptive precipitation patterns will see a massive reduction in the production of rice, wheat, maize and fish. It predicts, “Both India and China will face drop in the yield of wheat and rice anywhere between 30-50 percent by 2050. At the same time, demand for food grains will go up by at least 20 percent. As a net result, China and India alone will need to import more than 200-300 million tonnes of wheat and rice, driving up the international prices of these commodities in the world market.”

Consider this. A weak monsoon last year triggered a minor food crisis in India. Though the country has surplus wheat and rice currently, it is a net importer of pulses and oil seeds. From time to time, India also depends on the international market to meet the local demand for sugar. The result of this mixed fortune in food security? A food inflation that has hovered around the15 percent mark for over a year.

The food security report among India’s neighbours is not rosy either. China is a net importer of palm, soya and is buying large amounts of corn from the US, in levels that were last seen 14 years ago. Bangladesh is importing 300,000 tonnes of its staple food, rice, this year and Nepal has been dependent on the international market for its food needs for sometime now. 


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Illustation: Malay Karmakar
Put together, China and India are the largest producers and consumers of food grains and just a small variation in the demand and supply scenario is one country turns the global order topsy-turvy. For instance, if China were to import just 5 percent of its food grain needs, then the whole global export will be eaten up. In a similar situation, sugar deficit in India last year drove the sugar futures in New York to a 29-year high. The Yellow River in China and the Ganges (with its tributaries) in India will be the most affected by glacial melting and might turn into seasonal rivers by the second half of the century, the study notes. “They are expected to lose between 15 percent to 30 percent water due to glacier depletion. The Yangtze and Brahmaputra will also lose about 7 percent to 14 percent of the annual flow due to depletion of glaciers. Bangladesh will face the cumulative impact of these developments,” it says.

These rivers are the lifelines that feed 1.3 billion people spread across China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. For instance, the Yellow river in China is one of the largest groundwater irrigated areas in the world. In India, the northern region that is fed by Ganges is literally the country’s rice bowl. Compounding the water loss is the contamination of these rivers that further lowers the availability for agriculture. Almost 35 percent of Yellow River is already unfit for drinking and irrigation. Similarly, Yamuna, the main tributary of Ganges, is polluted to the extent of 50 percent.  

The cumulative affect of glacial melting and loss of water content in rivers can further accentuate the problem of vanishing groundwater in large tracts across India. A 2009 joint study by Indian and American scientists using NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, satellite showed significant groundwater depletion in Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, the major grain growing areas in India. Within six years from 2002, the states lost water that would be enough to fill US’ largest reservoir twice over. 

“The satellite also confirmed that the glaciers are melting,” says Virendra Tiwari of the Hyderabad-based National Geophysical Research Institute. But more importantly he adds, “We should understand that while our urban water needs can be met through initiatives like rain water
harvesting, ground water depletion in farming regions is much more serious.”

That is because 90 percent of India’s water is used for agriculture. Though this usage, as predicted by the Strategic Foresight Group study, might decline to 75 percent by 2050, urgent measures are needed to find ways to recharge water bodies and find more efficient ways for irrigation. More so, because an increasing population will see demand for food grains shooting up, driving the need for higher grain output.   

“This impact (of Himalayan rivers losing water content) might take another 30 to 40 years to happen, giving us a window of opportunity,” says Waslekar. “And we can start by setting up a system wherein data is properly collected and shared between India and its three neighbours,” he adds. Incredibly, the whole region along the Himalayan river basin range is the largest area in the world that doesn’t have a single global climate observing system, rendering research to be based more on conjecture.

With many giving doomsday predictions on water being the 21st Century’s oil and might force nations to war, India can ill afford to take the risk with its neighbours, especially China.

 

(This story appears in the 02 July, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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