Senior MPs call on all of us to recognise the costs of our water consumption in light of devastating new report

Posted On: 
19th March 2019

Food and clothing imported by 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.

Gebre at his farm in Alaba, southern Ethiopia. A local irrigation scheme has been depleted due to climate stress and overuse, leaving his farm and his family without sufficient water.
Credit: 
WaterAid/Genaye Eshetu

Some 4 billion people in the world live in physically water-scarce areas and 844 million don’t have access to clean water close to home. The world’s water crisis is getting worse, yet globally we use six times as much water today as we did 100 years ago, driven by population growth and changes in diets and consumer habits.

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 Beneath the Surface: The State of the World’s Water 2019, WaterAid reveal the countries where the most people live with physical water scarcity, how ballooning customer demands jeopardise water access for the poorest and most marginalised people, and how making thoughtful choices as consumers can help ensure access to water for basic needs is prioritised, wherever you are in the world.

Reacting to the report, Stephen Twigg MP, Chair of the International Development Committee said: “This World Water Day, we all have a responsibility to look at how we can reduce the impact our consumption has on water-scarce communities around the world.

“WaterAid’s report is an important reminder of the work that is required if we are to meet the Global Goals and ensure that everyone, everywhere has secure access to water when and where they need it by 2030,” Twigg continued.

The report reveals the huge water footprint of many everyday products. A morning cup of coffee contains about 125 ml of actual water, yet the ground coffee takes 140 litres to produce. An alternative might be to have a cup of tea instead, at 27 litres per cup.

It is not just coffee. Avocados have an estimated water footprint of almost 2,000 litres per kilogram and rice accounts for 40% of all global irrigation as well as 17% of global groundwater depletion. It has 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.

Rebecca Pow MP, who is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change said “it is increasingly important that developed countries consider what pressures their demand for products such as clothing and food stuffs put on water scarce countries.  If we are to live sustainably we have to start to put a cost on this.”

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 as climate change threatens to make the situation worse.

“Consumers need to be aware of the environmental and human impact their choices have and that there is a responsibility on the shoulders of retailers to ensure they are transparent with consumers about the wider impacts of the products they sell,” said Christine Jardine, former Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs.

The consequences in some of the water exporting countries are dire. For example, in Ethiopia, climactic changes alongside mass irrigation of crops for export, including roses, have been linked to the shrinking of Lake Abijata.

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.”