World Water Day – Call to action to address the global water scarcity problem

With a vision to tackle the world’s water crisis, World Water Day, held on 22nd March 2017, highlights the growing urgency for industries to develop solutions to the most pressing water-related challenges of today.

Yet while businesses face up to their sustainability challenges, the farmer level of the supply chain is often overlooked and there is a growing call to action for businesses to unite and transform one of the world’s thirstiest and precious commodities.

Cotton: The Thirsty Crop

Cotton is a hugely important and significant crop. It is the most widely used natural fibre in clothing and textiles, and approximately 20 million tonnes of cotton is produced each year in 90 countries, supporting 250 million livelihoods.

Yet the future of cotton – one of the world’s thirstiest crops – is at risk and faces significant sustainability challenges. Cotton accounts for a large proportion of the global water consumption used for crop production, with 1kg of cotton requiring a vast 10,000 litres of water. Research from WWF has shown that only 50-80% of the water withdrawn actually reaches the crops because it is often lost during the transfer to the field. Across the whole supply chain from farm to fashion, one t-shirt requires 2,700 litres of water, equating to the same amount of water the average person drinks in three years.

Water security

Research from the World Economic Forum (WEF) reveals that water security is “one of the most tangible and fastest-growing social, political and economic challenges faced today”. Within the next 12-15 years the amount of safe water could drop by 40%, and by 2025 it is predicted that two-thirds of the world’s population could live under water stress conditions.

Moreover, water is becoming scarcer in the regions where cotton is most commonly grown. The growing call for climate change adaption and improved water use efficiency puts pressure on the cotton industry and everything else that it supports, channeling the urgent need for sustainable agricultural practices and support for smallholder farmers operating in the developing world.

More Crop Per Drop

CottonConnect, an organisation with a vision to create more sustainable cotton supply chains, released ‘More Crop Per Drop – Water Report on the Cotton Industry’ in 2014, revealing the growing necessity to protect the cotton industry from water scarcity. In collaboration with the Better Cotton Initiative and major brands such as C&A Foundation and John Lewis, CottonConnect is working towards reducing cotton’s water footprint by empowering farmers with the skills they need to conserve water and farm sustainably using an approach that integrates training programmes with modern agricultural practices.

Supported by CottonConnect, the report proves that smallholder farmers can make a significant impact on water usage through simple interventions. Basic agricultural practices, farmer training and knowledge sharing can coach farmers how to be aware of the volumes of pesticides and water they are using, how this relates to the crop yield and how to use more sustainable cotton farming practices – a reduction in chemicals leads to less water pollution.

Such simple interventions, including soil conservation and green mulching, have resulted in a 30% lower water use among smallholder farmers and has the potential to benefit farmers across the developing world who have yet to be taught how to manage land sustainably. The theme of this year’s World Water Day is wastewater. Pollution of groundwater and surface water by agricultural use of untreated or inadequately treated waste-water is a major issue.

Beyond low-cost, simple improvements, the installation of simple modern technologies such as rainwater harvesting and drop irrigation systems can result in water savings of up to 60%. In India alone, drip irrigation systems have caused a 50% higher cotton production compared to conventional methods, suggesting that these could have the most dramatic and significant impact on cotton farming.

“These simple water management ideas are usually new news to farmers. Good water management practices give these farmers the scope to grow the crop with judicious use of water – which ultimately helps in increasing the underground water table and give good results.” Hardeep Desai, Farm Innovation Director at CottonConnect, South Asia

Call to action

Change is possible and with these interventions farmers can use less water while improving their crop yields. As those grappling with the effects of water scarcity, more support is needed for cotton farmers to scale-up these sustainable practices and build a more resilient supply of cotton.

By recognising their water challenges and need to adapt before the problem worsens, businesses, retailers and NGOs need to collaborate to support farmer training programmes, ensure greater transparency and closer relationships across the supply chain and fund initiatives to drive cotton supply chain sustainability at scale. Not only will financial investment have a positive social and environmental impact on cotton farming communities, but brands can build their sustainability credentials and tackle one of cotton’s biggest challenges.

At CottonConnect, we have helped many brands to address water efficiency at farm level, while also addressing chemical usage and improving yields, and we have supported brands to source this sustainable cotton. We also work towards other SDGs including gender equality, poverty alleviation and good health and wellbeing. If you’re interested in sourcing sustainable cotton and need help on your sustainability journey, please get in touch.

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