WaterAid's World Water Day report shows hidden cost of consumer products

Posted by
Emily Haile
18 March 2019
A boy and a man plough the land in Talo. There is only one water pump in the village and there is not water for everyone's daily needs. Many people use traditional wells that they have dug themselves. Talo, Municipality of Falo, Circle of Bla, Segou R ...
Image: WaterAid/ Guilhem Alandry

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Water: The Hidden Cost of What We Buy

March 19, 2019 (New York, NY) — The production of goods for export is depleting the water supplies of some of the world’s poorest countries, a new report from WaterAid warns. Collaboration between the public and private sectors is crucial to ensuring that economic growth does not threaten equitable access to drinking water.

As high-income countries buy products with a considerable ‘water footprint,’ this World Water Day, WaterAid is calling goods production to be more sustainable and for consumers to be more mindful when making purchases.

amount of freshwater available for drinking infographic
Image: WaterAid

In many areas the amount of groundwater—water pumped out of underground aquifers for irrigation—exceeds the amount that is naturally replenished.  This can cause wells and pumps to run dry. Global groundwater depletion has increased by 22% in the past decade, largely due to rising demand in India (23%), China (102%) and the U.S. (31%).

The hidden water cost of avocados 1lb
Image: WaterAid

Some products have a huge water footprint:

  • Your morning cup of coffee contains about 200 ml of actual water, yet the ground coffee takes 35 gallons to produce. An alternative might be to have a cup of tea instead, at 9 gallons per cup.
  • Avocados have an estimated water footprint of over 238 gallons per pound.
  • Rice accounts for 40% of all global irrigation, and 17% of global groundwater depletion, with an average water footprint of over 1,200 gallons of water per pound.
  • Cotton is a thirsty fabric: grown and produced in India it has a water footprint of 12,000 gallons per pound; in Pakistan, this is an average of 5,000 gallons and in the United States about 4,200 gallons.

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 does not have clean water close to home.

Food and crop exports, while important sources of income for most countries, contribute to this problem if production is not sustainable. Industrial and agricultural use of water should not be prioritized over people’s ability to get water daily for their basic needs.

In the U.S.,   the average consumer’s water footprint is twice the global average. To achieve an equal water footprint for people around the globe, U.S. consumers would need to reduce their water footprint by 70%.

Consequences in water-exporting countries are dire:

  • In Ethiopia, climate change alongside crop 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.

Sarah Dobsevage, WaterAid’s U.S. Director of Strategic Partnerships, said:

“We all have a role to play in reducing the impact our consumption has on water-scarce communities around the world. This World Water Day, we re-affirm our commitment to working with the world’s leading companies to address the global water crisis. We also want to inspire consumers to use their purchasing power to demand products with a smaller water footprint. We cannot do it alone. We must work together to achieve a more sustainable, equitable world, where everyone is free to enjoy the human right to clean water, sanitation and hygiene.”


For more information, please contact:

In the US: Emily Haile, Senior Communications and Media Manager, [email protected]

In London: Yola Verbruggen, Senior Media Officer, [email protected], +44(0)207b793 4909

About WaterAid
WaterAid is working to make clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene normal for everyone, everywhere within a generation. The international nonprofit organisation works in 34 countries to change the lives of the poorest and most marginalised people. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 25.8 million people with clean water and 25.1 million people with decent toilets. For more information, visit www.wateraid.org/us.


[1] 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

[1] Hoekstra and Wiedmann (2014). ‘Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint,’ in Science, Vol 344, page 1115, Available at:

[1] 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/

[1] World Resources Institute (2013). Water Stress by Country. Available at: https://www.wri.org/resources/charts-graphs/water-stress-country

[1] 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

[1] 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

[1] Ibid

[1] 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

[1] National Institute for Transforming India (2018). Composite water management index. Available at: http://niti.gov.in/content/composite-water-management-index-june-2018-0