India’s dangerous ‘food bubble’
Grain production is up, but wells are going dry from the unsustainable use of irrigation water.
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% 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% of children under age 5 are underweight. A survey for Save the Children found that children in 1 out of 4 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.
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