Our food and fashion are draining water away from the poor
Food and clothing imported by wealthy Western countries are making it harder for many poor and marginalized 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 contains about 200 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 34 litres per cup.
- 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 prioritized 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 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 realize 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 Abjata.[i]
- Pakistan is an extremely water-stressed country: the ratio of withdrawal to available supply is over 80%.[ii] Yet, Pakistan is the largest groundwater exporter – through production of crops - with 7.3 billion cubic meters in 2010.[iii]
- India’s rate of groundwater depletion increased by 23% between 2000 and 2010.[iv] India is the third largest exporter of groundwater – 12% of the global total.[v] India also uses the largest amount of groundwater – 24% of the global total.[vi] One billion people in the country live in water scarce areas.[vii]
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, fueled 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.”
[i] Addis Standard. (2018) Analysis: Climate change, excessive water extraction behind vanishing Ethiopian lakes. Available at: http://addisstandard.com/analysis-climate-change-excessive-water-extraction-behind-vanishing-ethiopian-lakes/
[ii] World Resources Institute (2013). Water Stress by Country. Available at: https://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/water-stress-country
[iii] Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T. and Puma, M. (2017). ‘Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade,’ in Nature, Vol. 543, pages 700–704, Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature21403
[iv] Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T. and Puma, M. (2017). ‘Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade,’ in Nature, Vol. 543, pages 700–704, Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature21403
[vi] Mekonnan, M and Hoekstra, A. (2011). National Water Footprint Accounts: The green, blue and grey water footprint of production and consumption. Available at: https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report50-NationalWaterFootprints-Vol1.pdf
[vii] National Institute for Transforming India (2018). Composite water management index. Available at: http://niti.gov.in/content/composite-water-management-index-june-2018-0
WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international not-for-profit organization works in 34 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalized people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 25.8 million people with clean water and 25.1 million people with decent toilets.
- 844 million people in the world – one in nine – do not have clean water close to home.
- 2.3 billion people in the world – almost one in three – do not have a decent toilet of their own.
- Around 289,000 children under five die every year from diarrheal diseases caused by poor water and sanitation. That's almost 800 children a day, or one child every two minutes.
- Every $1 invested in water and toilets returns an average of $4 in increased productivity.
- Just $15 can provide one person with clean water.
- To find out if countries are keeping their promises on water and sanitation, see the online database www.WASHwatch.org
 World Health organization (2012) Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage