> Water



Water in terms of its scarcity, availability, access, ownership, and quality is essential to life, and is an increasingly important indicator of sustainability. Further, the diversion of water for agriculture (sometimes up to 80 % of a country’s water supply), makes water a politically as well as economically, socially and ecologically sensitive topic. Pollutants and pesticides wash into rivers and destroy downstream ecosystems such as corals and breeding grounds for fish (WWF).



The water footprint of a product is the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured over the entire supply chain. It is a multidimensional indicator, showing water consumption volumes by source and polluted volumes by type of pollution; all components of a total water footprint are specified geographically and temporally. 

The water footprint concept is interesting. On the one hand it does not do much more than gather and present known data in a new format and as such does not add new knowledge. On the other hand, the water footprint adds a new fruitful perspective on issues such as water scarcity, water dependency, sustainable water use, and the implications of global trade for water management.

Cotton: About 53 percent of the global cotton field is irrigated, producing 73 percent of the global cotton production (Soth et al., 1999). Approximately 20 percent of organic cotton is from irrigated production. 

The Water Footprint Network claims that1 kg of cotton textile requires 11,000 litres of water (as a global average). So for example, a 250 gram shirt 'costs' 2700 litres. Of this total water volume, 45% is irrigation water consumed (evaporated) by the cotton plant; 41% is rainwater evaporated from the cotton field during the growing period; and 14% is water required to dilute the wastewater flows that result from the use of fertilisers in the field and the use of chemicals in the textile industry.

The UNESCO Water Footprint for Cotton Consumption reports that cotton consumption is responsible for 2.6 per cent of the global water use. As a global average, 44 per cent of the water use for cotton growth and processing is not for serving the domestic market but for export. This means that nearly half of the water problems in the world related to cotton growth and processing can be attributed to foreign demand for cotton products.

By looking at the trade relations, it is possible to track down the location of the water footprint of a community or, in other words, to link consumption at one place to the impacts at another place. The UNESCO study for instance shows that consumers in the EU25 countries indirectly contribute for about 20 per cent to the desiccation of the Aral Sea. Visualizing the actual but hidden link between cotton consumers and the water impacts of cotton production is a relevant issue in the light of the fact that the economic and environmental externalities of water use are generally not included in the price of the cotton products paid by the foreign consumers.

About one fifth of the global water footprint due to cotton consumption is related to the pollution. This estimate is based on the assumption that wastewater flows can be translated into a certain water requirement for dilution based on water quality standards. 


The current lack of sustainable water use for agriculture harms the environment by sucking rivers, lakes and underground water sources dry, increasing soil salinity and thereby destroying its quality, and by washing pollutants and pesticides into rivers that in turn destroy downstream ecosystems such as corals and breeding grounds for fish in coastal areas (WWF). 

Cotton (along with sugar and rice) is notorious as one of the thirstiest plants on earth. It takes 7,000 to 9,000 litres of water to produce one tonne of fiber. The high dependency on water also makes cotton production vulnerable to climate change.

Because organic cotton tends to be grown in more marginal farming areas it is more likely to be rain-fed than grown under irrigation. It is estimated that around 70-80 percent of organic cotton is rain fed; although there is irrigated organic cotton (such as in parts of Turkey, India, U.S., Egypt, and the province of Xinjiang in China). Further, not all irrigation is equally demanding; drip irrigation (which can be applied directly to the roots), whilst more expensive to set up, is far more efficient than flooding or spray techniques.


In many agriculture areas, pollution of groundwater courses with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is a major problem. As the use of these is prohibited in organic agriculture, they are replaced by organic fertilizers (e.g. compost, animal manure, green manure) and through the use of greater biodiversity (in terms of species cultivated and permanent vegetation), enhancing soil structure and water infiltration. Well managed organic systems with better nutrient retentive abilities, greatly reduce the risk of groundwater pollution.

Organic agriculture has a greater amount of soil organic matter (humus) which results in a greater 'sponginess' and ability to hold water, making it less demanding on water resources. Organic matter can hold up to 30 percent more water than conventional and the use of cover crops, innovative water management techniques such as micro watersheds, improve water efficiency.  

Other water savings come from no chemical water pollution (and the resulting improved water quality). Because soil and water management under organic production requires knowledge in low impact techniques, not only will the condition of land and water be improved, but the investment in upskilling farmers will have an ongoing positive effect. Innovative farmers are using techniques such as rain water harvesting, composting to build up organic matter in the soil (which holds moisture), or drip irrigation to maximise water efficiency.

Watershed Management: A watershed is an area that supplies water by surface or subsurface flow to a drainage system or body of water. Watersheds vary from a few hectares to thousands of square kilometers. Watershed management (WSM) is the integrated use of land, vegetation, and water in a specific drainage area with the objective of conserving hydrologic services and reducing or avoiding damage downstream or underground. The first generation of WSM projects emphasized engineering and civil works. By the end of the 1980s, the comparative failure of this top-down approach was clear. Since the 1990s, WSM programs have integrated livelihood improvements and poverty reduction objectives with soil and water conservation. 

The Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN) in India runs a 'Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network'. The RRA Network supports rainfed farmers by carrying out field research and communicating ways farmers can maximise production under rainfed conditions, by investing in soil organic matter and soil fertility.   


Aral Sea: The Aral Sea is the most famous example of the effects of water abstraction for irrigation. Between 1960-2000, the Aral Sea lost approximately 60 percent of its area and 80 percent of its volume (UNEP). Its salinity has risen by almost 600 percent and all native fish have disappeared. The decline of the Aral Sea is closely linked to Uzbekistan’s cotton irrigation system which draws water from the region’s two major rivers: the Amu Darya and Syr Darya and is an illustration of the negative impact cotton production can have on water supply (EJFoundation). Read more here.

Honduras: Another example of a country in crisis over water used for cotton agriculture is Honduras, Central America. Shrimp farming has played an historical role in the economy of southern Honduras, and was once a thriving industry for indigenous fishermen (and textiles). Over the years competition and pressure on the industry has caused both native land right disputes and ecological degradation to the coastal area. The further development of large scale cotton, sugar cane and beef farming has pushed the region into further decline, drawing on fresh water and polluting the waterways. Degraded water quality is affecting not only the sustainability of the shrimp farms and the livelihoods of artisan estuarine fishers but all aquatic life. Today, Southern Honduras is a “critically endangered region,” designated by the United Nations as an area where basic life support systems, including water and soils, are in jeopardy (Cultural Survival). Deforestation, erosion, deterioration of watersheds, the indiscriminate use of agricultural pesticides, and overgrazing has transformed the southern Honduran landscape. Early work is being carried out by (SOCiLA), a German non profit initiative, on the feasibility of growing organic cotton in Honduras - with an ambition to resurrect the textile industry... sustainably.


Chetna Organic, India

Productivity of any crop, and the livelihoods of farming communities, is dependent on two natural resources: soil and water. Therefore the conservation of these natural resources is essential for the sustainability of rain fed agriculture. All cultivation at Chetna Organic is rain fed. Hence, great importance is placed on water and soil conservation. Comprehensive measures have been implemented by Chetna to conserve soil and water (such as the formation of water bodies to conserve the water and bunds, trenches, plantation of the forest, fruit and other plants based on the land slope) and improve productivity (through crop diversification, seed conservation, better cropping practices etc) and utilize the common property resources available in the area such as water bodies, vegetation, forests, grazing lands etc for the benefit of all the inhabitants in the area.

Chetna is currently implementing a watershed program over 3000 hectares of land. (A watershed is a river basin, the basis for collecting rainwater run-off). The watershed program also enables the local community to start up fisheries collectively, which now yields them 4 MTs of fish every six months. This is an additional opportunity for the local community created by Chetna (Chetna Organic). Find out more here.


GAP Project, Turkey

GAP is an acronym in Turkish for the South Eastern Anatolian Project. The GAP region today is poised to undergo a transformation from a region of low productivity, unemployment, migration, and relative underdevelopment to a region based on new competitive advantages. The transformation will be based on sustainable production, involving a realignment of key productive sectors (agriculture, tourism and textiles) around a common strategy – featuring organic products, produced by largely renewable energy resources, under fair labour, and supporting entrepreneurship. The region wants to carve out a leading position among emerging regions worldwide.

The GAP Project pays particular attention to the sustainable use of natural resources, especially water. Public and private institutions such as water users associations give training to farmers on water use efficiency.  At the same time, modern pressurized systems such as drip and sprinkler irrigation are being introduced. The government offers incentives such as grants or low interest credits to farmers to encourage implementation.

The GAP Region produces 80 percent of Turkey’s cotton. Currently 360 farms produce 8,000 MT of lint in 5,000 ha of land in the Region.  Around 300,000 ha are being irrigated, and expected to reach 1 million ha by the end of 2012. This indicates that vast areas will open up to irrigated farming in a very short period of time. It is expected that cotton will still be the dominant crop in the newly irrigated areas. The target of the GAP Organic Farming Cluster Development Project is to produce 160,000 MT of lint on 100,000 ha of land. Thus, the GAP Region will become one of the most important organic cotton providers in the world. The project also aims to develop the textile industry in the GAP Region, so that, the region will be an important center for organic textiles. Read more about the GAP organic cotton plans here.


Global Water Program, John Hopkins University http://globalwater.jhu.edu/magazine/article/agriculturemeeting_the_water_challenge/

Thirsty crops cause water shortage and pollution, WWF http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/about_freshwater/freshwater_problems/thirsty_crops/

Water Footprint, UNESCO http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home

Glantz 1998; Hall et al., 2001; Pereira et al., 2002; UNEP, 2002; Loh and Wackernagel, 2004

About cotton growing in Uzbekistan: http://www.ejfoundation.org/page142.html

Land use crisis in Honduras: http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/honduras/reclaiming-commons-grassroots-resistance-and-retal

SOCiLA http://www.socila.eu/index.html

SE Anatolia Turkey GAP project: http://www.gap.gov.tr

Mahesh BG, Chetna Farmers Association, Water management http://www.chetnaorganic.org.in/Initiatives.html