Water Footprint II
Cotton and Cotton Water Footprint
The water we consume in our daily life or the water we consume indirectly has a tremendous and significant place in all areas of our lives. Among the products we consume, cotton is one of the most important and worth considering. Cotton farming is the largest consumer of water in the clothing supply chain. We are not aware of the water spent on most of the cotton clothes. The most important thing to know here is that the water used in the irrigation water of cotton is blue water, and blue water is irreplaceable underground and surface water. These problems take the possibility of a sustainable future from our hands. That’s why I wanted to share the processes and importance of the water footprint of cotton and cotton in this article. Let’s start with the water footprint of cotton to understand the amount of water and the type of water used in cotton farming.
Water Footprint of Cotton
Before analyzing the water footprint of cotton, I want to explain the water footprint types very briefly. There are three types of water footprint. The first one is the Green Water Footprint that refers to the consumption of rainwater stored in the soil formed by precipitation. The second one is the Bluewater footprint which is the water in rivers, lakes, and wetlands, and aquifers used for irrigation. And finally, the third one is Grey Water Footprint refers to pollution and is defined as the volume of freshwater required to assimilate pollutants and maintain water quality standards(3). For more details, you can check our previous blog post ‘What is the water footprint?’.
The proportion of blue water in the water footprint of cotton is relatively large because cotton is often irrigated. On average, one-third of the water footprint of cotton is blue water. For some countries, the blue water proportion is more significant, like in Uzbekistan (88%) and Pakistan (55%). (1)
The reason for the water footprint that changes according to the regions where cotton is grown varies according to the rainwater it receives during the production process, that is, green water. While the blue water footprint of the places with rainfall during the production process is lower, the blue water footprint is more prominent in the fewer rainfall regions.
Your Cotton Shirt Could Contain 2,500 Litres of Water!
The global average water footprint of cotton fabric is 10,000 liter per kilogram. That means that one cotton shirt of 250 gram costs about 2500 liter. A pair of jeans of 800 grams will cost 8000 liters. These figures are global averages. The water footprint of cotton fabric varies from place to place. The water footprint of cotton fabric made with cotton from China is 6000 liters/kg. For cotton from the USA, this is 8100 liters/kg, for cotton from India 22500 liter/kg, for cotton from Pakistan 9600 liter/kg, and cotton from Uzbekistan 9200 liter/kg (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2010, 2011). (1)
Cotton is everywhere. In your food, wallet, in your closet. Cotton has a significant impact on the planet. Take your favorite cotton t-shirt; it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one t-shirt and one t-shirt enough for one person to drink for 900 days. It also takes a lot of energy to grow and manufacture transport mainly; it needs the energy to care for it. One load of drying uses 5x more power than washing, and one load of washing uses near 10 Litre of water. Now think about how often you wash & dry your t-shirt. Don’t we have plenty of resources? Plenty of water? Yes, but %97 is salty. Nearly 2% is locked in snow or ice. That leaves less than 1% that we can access, and 70% of that grows our crops. Cotton is a very thirsty crop. Now, think how many t-shirts are in your closet, country, on the planet. How many t-shirts do you need? How often do you need to wash&dry them? There is a solution. We can use less water, less energy, skip the drying&ironing and save 1/3 of your t-shirt’s carbon footprint. Choices make a difference; make each choice count.
Cotton And Environmental Impact
Cotton is the most widespread profitable non-food crop in the world. Its production provides income for more than 250 million people worldwide and employs almost 7% of all labor in developing countries. Approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton. The global reach of cotton is vast, but current cotton production methods are environmentally unsustainable—ultimately undermining the industry’s ability to maintain future production. (4)
The water use of cotton often has significant local impacts. It is estimated that 97% of the water in the Indus River goes towards producing crops like cotton. Diversion of water and its pollution by cotton-growing have severely impacted significant ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus Delta in Pakistan, and the Murray Darling River in Australia. (5)
Another negative consequence of heavy irrigation is soil salinization. When fields are repeatedly flooded with irrigation water, salt becomes concentrated near the surface. Plants can no longer grow on these soils, and agriculture has to be abandoned. (6)
Conventional production practices for cotton involve the application of substantial fertilizers and pesticides. Pesticides threaten soil and water quality and the health of biodiversity in and downstream from the fields. Heavy use of pesticides also raises concern for the health of farmworkers and nearby populations. (5)
Impact of Technology on Agriculture
Technological innovations have powerfully shaped agriculture throughout time. From creating the plow to the global positioning system (GPS) driven precision farming equipment, humans have developed new ways to make farming more efficient and grow more food. We are constantly working to find new ways to irrigate crops or breed more disease-resistant varieties. These iterations are vital to feeding the ever-expanding global population with the decreasing freshwater supply. (7)
While I am talking about the effects of cotton on the environment and the effects of technology on agriculture, I would like to talk a bit about the digital adventure of cotton;
The project aims to increase resource efficiency and achieve sustainable production in the cotton production value chain in the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) Region. Following the cotton journey, seed starts from soil preparation and going to the gin workshop and developing various innovations to see what improvements can be made. It aims to take steps towards changing the use of water. (8)
The project is called ” Economic and environmental impacts of resource efficiency and productivity growth in sustainable agricultural production through the Internet of Things.’’
Digital technologies such as field sensors, drip irrigation and fertigation technologies run by an algorithm, drone images, satellite images, and climate station data will be essential components of the project. All of the digital and analog observations and measurements will reside in the data refinery. These data will be used to create information runways where the best decisions will be made by use of smart technologies such as the Internet of Things and machine learning. (8)
As a result of the work done, within the scope of the project;
*Savings of around 46% in water and 20% in fertilizers were observed. In terms of yield, there was no apparent difference between the other fields. Still, in terms of inputs, water and fertilizers were saved, which showed us that ecologically, the same efficiency could be obtained using less water and fewer chemicals against environmental threats. (8)
As I dive into agriculture technologies, I want to finish my post with three startups from different parts of the world. Today, many startups aim to create a more water-friendly future. Start-ups, as they adapt quickly, pivot faster, use technology, and get knowledge generated by data, could play a critical role in more sustainable water usage. You will find three of the startups that work for a better future of water below;
Vertical Future was established in 2016 London by Jamie and Marie Burrows.
Vertical farming is not a ‘silver bullet.’ Still, it allows us to produce certain crop varieties closer to consumption points, growing fresh produce without soil and in controlled conditions – year-round. If implemented correctly, efficiently, and sustainably, vertical farming can promote a better, healthier planet and population.
Madar Farms is a smart farming company founded in Dubai in 2017, using agri-tech to produce agricultural products sustainably in the desert.
They provide a holistic approach to sustainability to help tackle food and water security challenges in the region. They provide high-quality, fresh, local produce using Controlled Environment Agriculture. They test AgTech technologies to inform policymakers and product development and strive for continuous learning to develop further and implement sustainable agricultural technologies.
WATERSIGN was founded in Israel in 2014 as an online platform developer for monitoring water systems.
WATERSIGN Patented Technology enables real-time monitoring and management of water usage of multiple users with a single sensor (water/pressure meter) at the main inlet. The company’s platform detects leakages, bursts, and blockages and provides immediate alerts, enabling clients to reduce pipe leakages.