India's Dangerous Food Bubble

Food production in India is on the rise just as unsustainable wells are running dry, creating a dangerous "food bubble" for the country's residents.

| Jan. 8, 2014

  • A large portion of the water that irrigates three-fifths of India's grain harvest comes from unsustainable irrigation practices.
    Photo by fotolia/lamio

This press release from the Earth Policy Institute is presented without editing for your information.

India is now the world's third-largest grain producer after China and the United States. The adoption of higher-yielding crop varieties and the spread of irrigation have led to this remarkable tripling of output since the early 1960s. Unfortunately, a growing share of the water that irrigates three-fifths of India's grain harvest is coming from wells that are starting to go dry. This sets the stage for a major disruption in food supplies for India's growing population.

In recent years about 27 million wells have been drilled, chasing water tables downward in every Indian state. Even the typically conservative World Bank warned in 2005 that 15 percent of India's food was being produced by overpumping groundwater. The situation has not improved, meaning that about 190 million Indians are being fed using water that cannot be sustained. This means that the dietary foundation for about 190 million people could disappear with little warning.

India's grain is further threatened by global warming. Glaciers serve as reservoirs feeding Asia's major rivers during the dry season. As Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers shrink, they provide more meltwater in the near term, but there will be far less in the future. To complicate matters, the monsoon patterns are changing too, making these annual deluges more difficult to predict.

What India is experiencing is a "food bubble": an increase in food production based on the unsustainable use of irrigation water. And this is happening in a country where 43 percent of children under age 5 are underweight. A survey for Save the Children found that children in one out of four families experience "foodless days"—days where they do not eat at all. Almost half subsist on just one staple food, thus missing vital nutrients that come in a diversified diet.

Although poverty has been reduced for some, two-thirds of the population still live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank. And the population is growing by nearly 30 million every two years, equal to adding another Canada to the number of people to feed. Within 20 years, India's population is expected to hit 1.5 billion, surpassing China.

Margalo Ashley-Farrand
1/13/2014 11:27:32 AM

Unfortunately, India has this problem of growing population and over-using their water in the context of extremely corrupt government at the local and national levels--Think Dickens' Bleak House, a story of a probate case that went on for several generations. more Indians have been speaking out to try to change the corruption in the legislatures and courts, but no changes yet. In 2004, Shankaracharya Sri Sri Jayendra, a true guru with the status of the Pope, spoke out about the corruption in Tamil Nadu, and the reaction was to falsely accuse him of conspiracy to commit murder. He was jailed for some months, let out of jail while his case went on and on and was finally dropped. Still no changes in the politicians and judges. The point is that the likelihood of India fixing this problem or any other is slim to none.

1/13/2014 7:54:45 AM

This thought provoking piece misses the point entirely in 1965 the USA had an excess of available cheap food because there was an excess of available cheap energy. Cheap energy=cheap food. That is the equation on which we have grown our current 7 billion population. It is also the insane equation on which we expect to support 9 billion Right now India is the future of all of us, for the Indian people it is arriving a little early, it will affect everyone as resources begin to run dry---water-- oil--fertiliser--living space, call it what you will, the end result will be the same We are all trying to sustain food supplies by relying on energy that is no longer cheap. As the wells sink deeper, more fuel must be used to suck up water, but as fuel costs more, the water drops out of reach. That simple observation can be applied to all our lives

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