Each year the cotton farmers in Hebei have to dig deeper for water. Three years ago it was 80 metres, this year it’s 120 metres. But as long as the water pumps do their job that’s ok, say the farmers. For now. For while they pay a bit more each year for the electricity to drive the pump, they don’t have to pay for the water.
Water remains free for farmers of one of the thirstiest crops in the world, cotton
Yet. Herein lies a perfect illustration of the challenges that lie at the heart of China’s water issues: An alarmingly scarce natural resource that remains free at point of use for farmers of one of the thirstiest crops in the world, cotton.
This challenge is compounded by two further facts: China is the world’s largest producer of cotton, and it remains one of country’s most important crops – until earlier this year, protected by a reserve price to ensure stable supply and prices for its estimated 20 million farmers.
“China is the world’s largest producer of cotton and it remains one of country’s most important crops – until earlier this year …”
A closer look at China Water Risk’s (CWR) map of water scarcity across the country, reveals that most of China’s cotton is grown in what CWR define as the ’Dry 11’ ‘At risk 9’ and ‘Deficit 6’ provinces.Located along the river basins of the Yangtze, Yellow River and Tarim (Xinjiang), cotton needs a constant and reliable supply throughout the growing season.
However, as CottonConnect knows, simple measures can help smallholder cotton farmers in China cut their water use by as much as 60%.
In a new report, launched to coincide with World Water Week, CottonConnect, a social enterprise that works to build sustainable cotton supply chains around the world, says that basic steps to educate and train cotton farmers can have a significant impact on their water use.
CottonConnect’s worked with 130,000 smallholder farmers in the last 4 years, often resulting in 30% water savings at each farm
Through its farmer training program, the organization has already worked with more than 130,000 smallholder cotton farmers across China, India and Pakistan in the last four years, often resulting in 30% water savings at each farm it has worked with.
The report, ‘More Crop Per Drop’ explains that, by enabling farmers to invest in technologies such as rainwater harvesting or drip irrigation, savings of up to 60% can be achieved.
Change is possible, at scale. But only if more brands are willing to better understand their supply chain…
40-60% of water in a cotton t-shirt can come from these stages
While acknowledging that a number of barriers remain – not least the ability of smallholder farmers to get their hands on capital to make the necessary investments – CottonConnect says that change is possible, at scale. But only if more brands are willing to better understand their supply chain and take steps to address the water challenge.
Water use in the textile sector in China has long been a point of focus for NGOs, media, and more recently the Chinese government, but it has largely focused downstream at the manufacturing and processing stage. Less understood – but equally important – is the use of water at the growing and production end of the value chain.
Of the estimated 2,600 litres of water it can take to produce a single cotton t-shirt, anywhere between 40% and 60% of that water used takes place in the cotton fields.
And as experts at CottonConnect suggest, a cotton t-shirt made solely from areas such as Xinjiang in the Northwest of China, still heavily dependent on flood irrigation, the 2,600-litre water footprint estimate is a conservative one. Here, farmers have two water sources: the Tarim River, and groundwater; snowmelt that feeds the Tarim currently offers a (mostly) reliable source of water, but global warming means that a good snowfall is no longer guaranteed and long-term prospects are uncertain. Secondly, the water table is shrinking fast; water previously accessible to farmers at 30 metres is now only found at 80 metres.
While drip irrigation is used in about 40% of farms, flood irrigation is still needed by most farmers at least twice a year to deal with the twin challenges of dealing with cotton pests and a highly alkaline and saline soil in order to make it viable for cotton-growing.
Cognizant of the fact that it must support 20% of the world’s population with just 7% of the world’s water sources, and that it holds a reputation for being one of the least water-efficient compared to its fellow G20 countries, the Chinese government has made water efficiency and conservation a top priority, and agriculture is firmly part of this agenda.
“Retailers sourcing cotton from China will have to do more to address water issues at farm level … it’s a strategic priority for the Chinese government”
Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect
As far as CottonConnect is concerned, the implications for the cotton sector and retail brands sourcing in China are clear. “Retailers sourcing cotton from China will have to do more to address water issues at farm level if they are to have truly sustainable supply chains, for three key reasons,” says Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect. “Firstly, it’s a strategic priority for the Chinese government; secondly, they face a likely growing risk from local communities targeting heavy water users. And most importantly, it is the sustainable livelihoods of cotton farmers and their communities that is at stake. They are the first to feel the direct impacts of water scarcity, and it is with them that our work must focus.”
To download ‘More Crop Per Drop’ click here
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