Sustainable use of water resources is not merely an issue for food and clothing companies, as both Insurers and investors have a vested interest in encouraging efficiency of water use and security of water supply in an ever thirstier world, according to WWF UK's water-footprint expert, Stuart Orr.
20 Aug 2008
While each person in the UK drinks, hoses, flushes and washes their way through around 150 litres of mains water a day, they consume about 30 times as much in “virtual” water embedded in food, clothes and other items – the equivalent of about 58 bathtubs full of water every day.
Launching the report, UK Water Footprint: the impact of the UK’s food and fibre consumption on global water resources, at World Water Week in Stockholm today, Stuart Orr, WWF-UK’s water footprint expert, said the UK was the sixth largest importer of water in the world.
“Only 38 per cent of the UK’s total water use comes from its own rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves,” he said. “The rest is taken from water bodies in many countries across the world to irrigate and process food and fibre crops that people in Britain subsequently consume
“What’s particularly worrying is that huge amounts of these products are grown in drier areas of the world where water resources are either already stressed or very likely to become so in the near future.”
Just one tomato from Morocco takes 13 litres of water to grow while the various ingredients in a cup of coffee collectively use 140 litres. A shirt made from cotton grown in Pakistan or Uzbekistan cotton – and possibly irrigated by water from the Indus river or the rivers that feed the Aral Sea in central Asia – soaks up 2,700 litres of water.
Cotton producing Pakistan has recently experienced its lowest water availability on record and the Indus river often runs dry before it reaches the sea. This affects the communities and critical habitats in the Indus delta as well as endangered species such as the Indus river dolphin. Over abstraction from the rivers that flow into the Aral Sea for the irrigation of cotton fields has led to the loss of 60% of its area and 80% of its volume in the last 40 years.
Closer to home, Spanish oranges and grapes come from a country where, earlier this year, drinking water has been shipped in from France due to acute shortages.
“Most people aren’t even aware that it takes massive amounts of water to grow the food and fibres we consume on top of what is used for drinking and washing and watering the lawn,” Mr Orr said.
”Therefore, it is essential that business and government identify the areas that could potentially suffer water crises and develop solutions so the environment is not overexploited to the point that people and wildlife lose out.”
WWF is encouraging some of the UK’s largest companies, such as Marks and Spencer, to evaluate their water footprints. A water footprint assesses the amount of water a business uses both directly from the tap and virtually through its supply chain. It includes water taken from both UK rivers and aquifers and those in other countries where crops are grown and processed.
WWF also asks companies to promote sustainable water use in areas where water is scarce.
“The private sector has a very important role to play. It can engage with governments and communities along its supply chain to support better water management,” Mr Orr said. “In order to reduce risk, businesses need to do their utmost to encourage more efficient and effective water use in water stressed areas where they operate.”
In India and Pakistan, WWF is working with farmers who grow thirsty crops such as cotton, rice and sugar cane to explore ways in which farmers can use less water to grow more crops. In one sugar cane trial, agricultural water use has dropped by 40 per cent while yields have risen by a third.
“This is not just an issue for food and clothing companies, producers and retailers. Insurers and investors have a vested interest in encouraging efficiency of water use and security of water supply in an ever thirstier world. Water is irreplaceable and climate change and population growth are only going to exacerbate the problem,” said Mr Orr.
He added: “There’s an important role for the public here. As a consumer you can ask businesses, including your local supermarkets, to tell you what they are doing to ensure good water management along their supply chains. As a citizen you can urge your government to make good water management a priority both in this country and overseas. But if we do nothing to alleviate the acute pressures on water resources at home and abroad then our inaction could have far reaching consequences for people and habitats.”