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Water problems stalk India rice producers

Water problems stalk India rice producers

Milo Hamilton, rice trader and author, on India, rice and regional issues. How India and China interact.

The often chaotic mixture of Indian languages, religions and cultures can leave a visitor’s head spinning.

“If you try to think of India as a country, you’ll go nuts,” says Milo Hamilton, veteran rice trader and president of “It’s more like an amalgamation of small countries. It’s amazing how it holds together.

“But it’s a democracy and farmers there can own land and India is currently on a tear. They’ve increased the amount of people that will receive food/grain subsidies from 35 percent of the population to 70 percent. They did that last fall and it’s so important -- hundreds of millions of more people can eat cheaper grain.”

Hamilton, author of “When Rice Shakes the World: The Importance of the First Grain to World Economic & Political Stability," argues that rice is not only an incredibly food source but a cause for cooperation between Asian governments that are too often displeased with each other.

“The International Rice Research Institute produced a rice almanac, about 400 pages. In the almanac, they declared that the China, India and Indonesia per capita consumption of rice is going up, not down, since four or five years ago. That was unexpected. Part of that may be due to the millions more being placed on the food-grain dole.”

These changes are seismic, says Hamilton. “The largest source of the world’s wealth -- over 50 percent -- 500 years ago, was in China and India. Today, half the world’s wealth is again in China and India. The difference is that 500 years ago, it was immobile and now it’s in motion. Their agriculture is in motion, drones, communication networks -- all of that is going on at the same time in those two mammoth countries.”

And they like to eat rice.

However, there are problems.

“India is wasting water at accelerating rates. Fifty-four percent of Indian land is arable. That’s the good news. The bad news is they have major water problems. India is pulling about half a Lake Mead worth of water from its declining aquifers. Lake Mead is the largest man-made reservoir in the United States.

“India is an exporter of 10 million tons of rice annually. But, as people continue to eat more and more rice, it is predicted that India will become a modest exporter -- or possible even importer -- of rice within the next five years.”


This dynamic has led to a global situation where “China could become a huge importer of rice and India loses its capacity to export it. I believe China will be an importer of rice for many years to come. I believe that India will be a modest exporter. Many experts believe that about India. My thoughts on China are not widely held yet.”

Hamilton returns to India’s worsening water problems. “India is a wonderful place. It’s an agricultural super power but it has water troubles. They have a major, long-term water problem that they aren’t facing up to.

“Of course, in a democracy, it’s rare that you have to face up to things. Instead, politicians are just looking to get re-elected.

“In a non-democracy like China, you can do what you want -- with water, say. And China is trying to come to grips with its water issues to some degree. For example, by importing soybeans, it is saving about 15 percent on its annual water usage.

“Rice consumes 70 percent of all irrigation water in China. Rice typically uses twice as much irrigated water to grow than wheat.”

Meanwhile, in India, 40 percent of the nation’s annual water resources are used up annually. Almost all of that is for irrigation, says Hamilton. “Inside China, the percentage is 20. In terms of water usage, India is actually in worse shape than China. Inside the United States, it’s 15 percent. Nigeria and Brazil and Russia use around 4 percent.

“In 10 years, all the areas with huge water problems will be forced to import rice. I stand by that statement until proven wrong. The whole thing is therefore about water, not rice.”

And the potential for conflict between the sub-continent and its northern neighbor lurks.

“Think about this: China must import so much of its energy while India controls the Indian Ocean through which much of the crude oil moves to China. Meanwhile, China controls much of the water that India relies on. The hope is that those two supply lines don’t keep the two from being civil and working together. The last thing that we need is for India to blockade the free movement of crude oil, gumming up China’s energy supply, because China isn’t giving them the water they need.”

Rice can actually be a balm in such a tense situation, says Hamilton.

“One of the magnificent things is that rice forces humankind to cooperate in Asia and has so for centuries. To survive all must share water. We can solve this but must work together.

“There are only three ways to deal with water: stop growing food, start importing water and food, or start telling people to leave. There is no fourth option. Few know that 92 percent of the water used in an individual home comes in the form of food. We may not be what we eat, but most of the water we use, we eat.”

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