Water is high on the agenda for Textile Exchange. Earlier we talked about how population and consumption levels around the world continue to grow, and how access to sufficient clean water is declining—especially for the poorest among us. We all know that the poorest among us include farmers in developing countries. To continue the water theme, let’s take a closer look at water footprinting, and how small scale organic cotton production can help address large scale water issues.
The United Nations tells us that about 70 percent of the world’s water supply is used for irrigating agricultural crops. Jens Soth from Helvetas has calculated that about 53 percent of the global cotton field is irrigated, producing 73 percent of the global cotton production.
It’s hard to fully appreciate the significance of these figures, just as it may be hard for some of us to comprehend a life where water is scarce or not safe to drink. In this respect the concept of a water footprint is fascinating since it adds a different perspective on issues such as water scarcity, water dependency, sustainable water use, and the implications of global trade for water management.
How does it do this? Well, when looking at cotton, the Water Footprinting Network takes the issue of water consumption beyond its use in the field and links it to final-product consumption. By showing the water footprint from the consumer’s perspective, it’s possible to compare the water demand for North American or European citizens with the water demand for people in Africa, India or Latin America. In the context of equitability and sustainability, this is a more useful comparison than a comparison between the actual water use in the USA or Europe with the actual water use in an African, Asian or Latin American country, simply because while the actual water use tells us something about production it does not tell us anything about consumption.
In a nutshell, the water footprint of a product is the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured over the whole supply chain. A water footprint helps us understand that water issues in cotton producing countries (many of them developing countries) cannot be solved without addressing the global issue that consumers need to be held responsible for some of the economic costs and ecological impacts, which remain in the producing countries. Clearly, this is a tremendously important message, albeit hugely difficult to address!
One obvious answer is to reduce consumption. Another is to choose organic.
Going beyond rainfed... While organic cotton is only one percent of the global supply, Textile Exchange estimates that at least 75-85 percent of it is produced under rainfed conditions. And whilst rainfed organic cotton has a significantly lower water footprint in the field than conventional and irrigated cotton, the hydrological benefits go way beyond simply not drawing water to the cotton field.
It’s probably fair to say that not many rainfed farmers would turn down an offer of a more plentiful and more consistent supply of water. But there are other ways to improve water availability.
Rainfed organic cotton requires farmers to use a range of biological products (biomass, farmyard manure, cover crops) and techniques (composting, mulching, and crop rotation) to build soil organic matter (SOM) and ensure its water-holding capacity. When the soils under organic crops are high in SOM they perform much better than conventional soils in holding water, therefore they are usually better at withstanding drought or flooding, leading to better performance in the context of climate variability and change.
We know that organic agriculture is a safeguard against water pollution (since there are no toxic and persistent pesticides or synthetic fertilisers entering the water way) but it also contributes to a safer supply of food. Growing other crops as part of the organic system means farming communities are more likely to have access to beans, pulses, and legumes since these are the crops used for improving soil fertility and retaining moisture.
Integrated watershed management can be a more sustainable approach to improving water supply for agriculture, and offers exciting prospects for farmers in semi-arid zones. With the right investment and technical knowhow, rainfed organic farmers can become rainwater harvesters within ‘micro watersheds’. Properly done, watershed management can achieve soil and water conservation while simultaneously intensifying natural resource use and agriculture to improve rural livelihoods. In best-practice examples, poverty concerns are introduced through a community participatory process. In these cases, investment programs also include income-generating activities that benefit the poor. For example the Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network is helping Indian rainfed farmers to build the capacity to do just this.
So much more needs to be done to improve management capacity on the ground and bring water harvesting to scale, particularly in rainfed areas. This was clear from my recent trip to India, and whilst there are examples of exceptional water innovation, more expertise and resources are needed to partner projects on the ground; help implement appropriate technologies and facilities, improve soil management practices, set up demonstration sites, and most importantly build long-term reservoirs of knowledge, not just of water.
For more information please visit our Farm Hub/Environmental Impacts/Water