China's and India's plans to produce more biofuels may cause shortages of water, which is needed for crops to feed their growing populations, according to a water study published on Thursday.
The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) study, Biofuels and implications for agricultural water use: blue impacts of green energy, says that both China and India are focusing on maize and sugarcane, which require large amounts of water, to boost expanded biofuel production.
"Crop production for biofuels in China and India would likely jeopardize sustainable water use and thus affect irrigated production of food crops, including cereals and vegetables, which would then need to be imported in larger quantities," Charlotte de Fraiture, the study's lead author, said in a statement.
"Are these countries, particularly India which has devoted so much effort to achieving food security, adequately considering the trade-offs involved, especially the prospect of importing food to free up sufficient water and land for production of biofuel crops?"
The International Water Management Institute has previously warned that increased production of crops for ethanol could threaten water supplies in the United States.
Charlotte de Fraiture says in an article published last May that: The recently completed Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture estimates that 1.2 billion people live in areas affected by water scarcity, where water resources are not enough to meet growing needs.
In many of them, people rely on irrigation for agriculture. In India, for example, more than 60 per cent of the cereal crops grown for food and feed production are irrigated — and in China, that figure is more than 70 per cent.
Irrigation demands large amounts of water, depending on both crop type and region, as well as climate and mode of cultivation (high-input versus low-input agriculture).
For example, one kilogram of Indian rice evaporates an average 1100 litres of irrigation water. A kilogram of wheat in China, by contrast, evaporates 820 litres.
Both China and India, responding to severe water shortages and growing water needs, have already initiated large projects to transfer water from areas of high to low abundance. The South-North transfer project in China and the Linking of Rivers project in India are just two examples. But such projects are controversial because of the high costs, environmental impacts and displacement of people associated with them.
Last month, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that governments should end subsidies for biofuels, as the demand for grain for the alternative energy industry result in surging food prices and the potential destruction of natural habitats.
The IWMI study says China aims to increase biofuels production fourfold to around 15 billion liters (4 billion gallons) of ethanol - 9 percent of its projected petrol demand - by 2020, from a 2002 level of 3.6 billion liters (950 million gallons). India is focused on also ramping up ethanol production. Earlier this week, the Indian government approved a plan to require oil companies to sell petrol with a blend of at least 10 percent ethanol by next year or double current levels.
The IWMI says that to meet their biofuels targets, China would need to produce 26 percent more maize and India 16 percent more sugarcane. It says that doing so would require an extra 75 liters (20 gallons) of irrigation water per person per day in China, and an additional 70 liters (18.5 gallons) per day in India, beyond what is needed for food.
In a statement, the IWMI's David Molden said that the situation could worsen already dire water shortages in parts of China and India.
"Without major changes in water management, how are we going to feed a growing population, satisfy increasing demand for meat, and, on top of that, use crops as a major source of fuel?" Molden asked.
The IWMI study says that that India and China could focus on crops that need less water, such as sweet sorghum for ethanol, and species including the jatropha bush and pongamia trees for biodiesel.
India plans to plant about 3.1 million hectares of jatropha plantations by 2009, and to have identified another 40 million hectares of wasteland by then to grow the plant.