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

  • WaterAid's World Water Day report shows hidden cost of consumer products
    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. Photo: WaterAid

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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.

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%).

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]
  • ndia’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.”


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