Virtual water depletes, export earnings grow

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Deccana Chronicla, Pramila Krishnan, 05th Mar 2013

Chennai: The lovely T-shirt on the hanger in the mall beckons you. It has got there after consuming hold your breath 957 litres for the dyeing of its threads, stitching and packaging. The quantity of water used in the production of a product through various stages, which is not seen by the customer, is known as ‘virtual water'. And all consumer goods would have consumed huge amounts of virtual water during production.

For instance, 1 kg of polished sugar needs 1,653 litres of virtual water, one slice of bread utilises 40 litres, making of one mug of beer consumes 75 litres and one burger would have taken 2,500 litres. This ‘virtual' fact is hardly discussed.

The captains of Tirupur hosiery industry must be proud they earn Rs 12,000 crore annually by exporting global brands from their units. But then, point out water experts, it would be imprudent to draw such growth maps by merely speaking about export earnings.

Many developed nations see the import of goods in terms of virtual money saved by not producing them locally. These nations only pay for the products and not the water consumed for producing them, says Mr G. Kumaravelu of Chennai, an agricultural expert and former member of the state planning commission.

Namakkal, the biggest producer of eggs in India, is another example for the ruination of our virtual water. Production of one egg consumes at least 200 litres of water and Namakkal exports several lakh eggs every day to the Gulf. "So, imagine the quantity of water we are spending and what the importers are saving," Mr Kumaravelu explains.

Countries like the US, UK, Italy and Israel conserve huge amounts of their water resources by importing water-intensive goods. Italy makes its famous footwear by importing processed leather from India, and leather factories in towns like Ambur, Vaniyambadi and Ranipet, have over-exploited the Palar river and ruined groundwater.

"The Italians can make more profits by processing the leather themselves but they don't do that in order to protect their waterways and environment," says Mr Kumaravelu, pointing out that the Noyyal had once spread across the western districts with 34 tributaries and 120 check-dams (kalvai) but the river is now dead.

Water experts argue that increasing our exports would only mean spending more water to produce those goods and helping the importing countries save their precious resources."

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