Drishtikon: Ukraine-Russia Conflict and Its Fallouts for the Indian Agriculture Sector and Water Stress

The Sangyan
5 min readMay 16, 2022

This article discusses the Ukraine-Russia Conflict and its Fallouts for the Indian Agriculture Sector from the vantage point of Climate Change, Virtual Water Trade, and the Water Crisis.

Introduction

Russia and Ukraine are significant exporters of agricultural products (particularly wheat, maize, and sunflower) and key players in the global food supply chain. Due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, global food grain prices have skyrocketed, exposing several countries to market shock and volatility and severely impacting the availability of agricultural products in many parts of the world.

As a popular idiom goes, “one person’s loss is another man’s gain”, the ongoing conflict provides an opportunity for India to take advantage of globally rising food grain prices by exporting its food grains. It will help India not only clear its excess stock and earn foreign exchange but also provide additional income to farmers. Indian traders are already executing contracts for exporting wheat. While this appears to be an amazing opportunity for doubling the farmer’s income utilizing market volatility, there is an aspect that needs serious consideration as we advance.

Water and India’s Agriculture

India is in a state of water emergency. As per NITI Aayog, 21 Indian cities–including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad–might run out of groundwater, and 40% of India’s population might have no access to drinking water in a few years if necessary water conservation measures are not taken. The imminent effects of changing climate will worsen this crisis. While the climate change-induced era of consequences will not differentiate between people based on their socio-political identities, it will eventually be a curse for people from economically disadvantaged groups including the small farmers and farm labourers, having poor capabilities to cope with this humanitarian crisis.

Agricultural activities consume a major proportion of India’s freshwater resources. In 2020, about 89% of India’s groundwater was extracted for irrigation use, with only 11% being used for domestic and industrial use. The water used in agriculture production, consumption, and trade refer to as ‘virtual water’, which is not visible to the naked eye but is consumed to produce food grain. Some estimates suggest that cultivating 1 kg of rice requires 2000–3000 litres of water and 1 kg of wheat requires 1500–2000 litres of water. The Central Government currently holds roughly 189.90 lakh tonnes (18,90,00,00,000 kilograms) of wheat and 550.37 lakh tonnes (55,03,70,00,000 kg) of rice in its stock, which are more than twice the required stock levels. A back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates a billion litres of water virtually locked in only these two crops. India also produces several other water-intensive crops like sugarcane, coffee, and cotton, and adding their stocks to these estimates would further increase the quantity of virtual water locked and traded through these crops. The export of these water-intensive crops is, in essence, the export of freshwater resources. As per Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates, a country importing 1 million tons of wheat is importing and therefore enlarging its water resource by, 1 billion m3 of freshwater. Whereas, the exporting country reduces its water resources by this amount.

Unsustainable agriculture practices have severely depleted groundwater resources in many parts of India. It’s no coincidence that states like Karnataka (coffee), Maharashtra (sugarcane), Gujarat (cotton), Madhya Pradesh (soybean), Punjab & Haryana (wheat and rice) are major producers of water-intensive crops and also facing a serious water crisis. The virtual water embedded in these crops should be considered a crucial aspect of national and regional water management policy, especially in regions facing water scarcity. We don’t imply India to compromise on its food self-reliance or foreign exchange by absolutely ceding the export of these crops or completely relying on their imports. Rather, policies related to agricultural production, consumption, and trade should adequately value virtual water used in food production to encourage judicious use of limited freshwater resources and promote investments in water-saving solutions to protect strategically important water resources. Saudi Arabia has also suffered from the rapid depletion of groundwater resources because of unsustainable wheat cultivation without considering the value of virtual water.

Way forward

The theme for Earth Day 2022 “Invest in Our Planet” is opportune for India to shift its agricultural practices towards climate resilience, and valuing virtual water used in agriculture production will also be a crucial aspect of that. It also demands that the present generation use freshwater resources as beneficiaries as well as trustees for future generations, as its unsustainable use would amount to ‘intergenerational environmental colonialism’ by effectively limiting the availability of freshwater for future generations.

India’s agricultural policies must not get distracted by the short-term politico-economic gain and ignore the long-term economic and environmental damage. The soft policy measures such as nudge and behaviour change theory should be utilised to account for virtual water in agricultural production, so that crop pattern and diversification take into account the five F’s i.e. Food and Fuel Security, Failed Monsoon, Foreign Exchange, and Fiscal Deficit concerns of India. Otherwise, the dual impact of climate change and the water crisis might be devastating for India’s agriculture and beyond.

Even if the ongoing conflict immediately subsides, global food prices are expected to hover around the present level for quite some time due to West-led sanctions on Russia and Ukraine taking some time to recover from its losses. India should export its surplus agricultural food grains during this period, but it shouldn’t try to mindlessly fill Russia’s or Ukraine’s shoes without considering the quantity and cost of virtual water that it will be exporting in the form of food grains. India will only benefit from this conflict if India exports its surplus food grains, which are unproductive assets if they merely lie in overfilled warehouses.

India’s endeavour to export wheat should not incentivize its farmers to engage in an unsustainable production cycle of food grains in expectation of higher prices in the future, as this will further deteriorate the already pressing water crisis (particularly depleting groundwater) in India. The Central Government and some State Governments have announced several policies to encourage crop diversification and groundwater conservation. Still, India needs to deliberate on a comprehensive policy to provide an economically viable alternative to farmers and other stakeholders without negatively affecting their income, while also keeping in mind national security challenges posed by the food and water crisis that mindless agriculture practices can ensue. India can’t afford to miss the forest for the trees.

Authors

  1. Abhishek Kumar, NCPEDP-Javed Abidi Fellow on Disability, The author can be reached at: abhishek.ncpedp@gmail.com
  2. Himanshu, Advocate. The author can be reached at: himanshu.zenithlegal@gmail.com

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The Sangyan

Law. Environment. Disability | Curator ~ Adv. Abhishek Kumar | Working on the 'Impact of Climate Change on Persons with Disabilities' | thesangyan.in | 🇮🇳 |