Our food and fashion are draining water away from the poor: WaterAid

Posted On: 
19th March 2019

Food and clothing imported by wealthy Western countries are making it harder for many poor and marginalised communities to get a daily clean water supply, a new report from WaterAid warns.

As high-income countries buy products with considerable ‘water footprints’ - the amount of water used in production - from water-scarce countries, WaterAid is calling on this World Water Day for the production of these goods to be made more sustainable and for consumers to be more thoughtful in their purchasing habits.

In many areas that amount of water pumped out of underground aquifers (groundwater) for irrigation exceeds the amount that is naturally replenished – meaning that wells and pumps can run dry.

Some products have a huge water footprint:

  • Your morning cup of coffee which contains about 125 ml of actual water is made from ground coffee which takes 130 litres to produce.
  • Avocados have an estimated water footprint of almost 2,000 litres per kilogram.
  • Rice accounts for 40% of all global irrigation, and 17% of global groundwater depletion, with an average water footprint of 2,500 litres of water per kilogram.
  • Cotton is a thirsty fabric: grown and produced in India it has a water footprint of 22,500 litres per kilogram; in Pakistan, this is an average of 9,800 litres and in the United States about 8,100 litres.

Just under two-thirds of the world’s population, or close to 4 billion people, live in water-scarce areas, where for at least part of the year demand exceeds supply. This number is expected to go up to 5 billion by 2050. One in nine people around the world currently do not have clean water close to home.

Export of food and crops, while important sources of income for most countries, contributes to this problem if production is not made sustainable. Industrial and agricultural use of water should not be prioritised over people’s ability to get water daily for their basic needs - particularly with climate change making things worse.

Virginia Newton-Lewis, WaterAid’s Senior Policy Analyst on water security, said:

“We all have a role to play in reducing the impact our consumption has on water-scarce communities around the world. Whether you’re a consumer, business or decision-maker, being more conscious about the effects of our actions on other parts of the world is crucial.

“It is unacceptable that the progress in increasing access that we have made over the past nearly two decades might now be undone. We need to realise that our consumption is not sustainable and take urgent action to change our ways.”

The consequences in some of the water exporting countries are dire:

  • In Ethiopia, climactic changes alongside mass irrigation of crops for export, including roses, have been linked to the shrinking of Lake Abijata.
  • Pakistan is an extremely water-stressed country: the ratio of withdrawal to available supply is over 80%.  Yet, Pakistan is the largest groundwater exporter – through production of crops - with 7.3 billion cubic meters in 2010.
  • India’s rate of groundwater depletion increased by 23% between 2000 and 2010. India is the third largest exporter of groundwater – 12% of the global total. India also uses the largest amount of groundwater – 24% of the global total. One billion people in the country live in water scarce areas.

In 2015, the global community committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goal 6, which promises that by 2030 everyone will have access to clean water, decent sanitation and good hygiene.

The human right to water must take priority ahead of other competing demands.

WaterAid Chief Executive Tim Wainwright said:

“This World Water Day, we are more determined than ever to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone everywhere, by 2030. The global consequences of unequal access to water and rapidly growing water scarcity, fuelled by a growing demand on water resources and the impact of climate and population changes, underline the need for co-ordinated international action on water security.

“An urgent understanding is needed to ensure that the push for economic development through exports of food and clothing, do not imperil current and future generations’ access to water. There can be no sustainable economic development without sustainable and equitable access to water.”