Cotton has a reputation for being "difficult," water-wise. Numerous non-profits and global media outlets such as The Guardian have laid blame on it for dwindling water resources in places like India, or for the environmental devastation in the Aral Sea. The truth, as is often the case, is not so cut and dried. In fact, cotton is downright drought tolerant and there are numerous ongoing efforts to improve cotton's water footprint across the board.
If cotton is not such a grotesque water hog, why the erroneous conventional wisdom? According to Ed Barnes, Senior Director for Agricultural and Environmental Research with Cotton Inc, a U.S.-based industry research and lobbying organization, quite often, it is guilt-by-association.
“Cotton naturally is very heat and drought tolerant,“said Barnes. “The plant...has always grown in very harsh environments. When you have a crop that is adapted to hot and dry climates, then it is growing in areas that experience water scarcity.”
Understanding where cotton is being grown is key to both understanding its water footprint, and also developing strategies to improve it.
“There all these complexities,” said Laila Petrie with the World Wildlife Federation’s Global Partnerships Team. “Is cotton being grown in a water-scarce area? Is there not good water governance?”
Even factoring all this, cotton – as one of the world’s most important agricultural products – does effect water scarcity in certain parts of the world, with sometimes negative impacts.
“There is a correlation between cotton and high irrigation, and there’s a high correlation between cotton growth and water scarcity and high water risk areas,” said Petrie.
Still, putting all the blame on the cotton plant is misguided. While farmers bear some responsibility, things like global warming and lack of oversight are beyond their control.
For example, the Aral Sea. While it is true that cotton farming was scaled up around Central Asia by the then ruling Soviet Union Government, it was the diversion of rivers away from the landlocked sea for unsustainable irrigation, all for quick cash from cotton exports, that was to blame for the disaster.
“The Aral Sea is a real tragedy of modern times,” said Barnes, “But there was nothing intrinsic about cotton that contributed to that problem.”
The truth is, we need cotton. As a product, it has numerous advantages. It is durable, recyclable, and provides livelihoods to millions. It’s main competitors – synthetics such as polyester, or leather – are rife with sustainability challenges as well. Cotton is an essential part of the global economy, and that is not changing anytime soon.
“Water is not a cotton problem, it’s a world problem, and none of us have really cracked that. It just so happens that cotton production is correlated with areas that have challenges,” said Petrie.
Thus, to blame the cotton plant alone would be a folly, and ignores the important role that technology, good governance, and proper farming techniques can play in making the crop more sustainable. In fact, Cotton Inc is working directly with farmers to provide better tools to help them make smarter water decisions – and seeing real results.
“The trend over the last 30 years – for every inch of water we use in irrigation, we’re getting more cotton,” said Barnes. “We’re finding over a 70 percent increase in lbs per inch of water.” And new technology, including the growing power of data, is making things ever better.
“One of our big pushes in the last five years is use of sensors in the field to measure the soil or the plant to see if it needs water,” said Barnes. They hope to have a national app for farmers next year that taps into sensor data, and data from the national weather service, to better equip farmers with the information they need to reduce water usage.
WWF is also working with partners – including Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle, and numerous other global brands – to improve cotton through the Better Cotton Initiative. Their goal is to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future, by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity.
This means understanding that cotton’s life-cycle water usage and consumption, however, is not just what happens in the fields. Throughout the entire supply chain water is used, whether it is processing, printing, or even consumers washing and drying cotton products at homes across the world.
“Not much visibility from one end to another,” said Petrie. “There are 20 steps between the brand and cotton field. Cotton is traded as a commodity which means its hard to trace without a lot of effort.
This is a fundamental challenge for the industry.”
Both Cotton Inc, and WWF, have commissioned extensive, detailed reports and studies to figure out the whole picture of cotton’s water footprint, because unless we truly understand cotton at every phase of its, we can’t make it sustainable. In a future piece, we’ll look at the entire supply-chain water impacts of cotton to better understand the big picture.
Photo Credit: Mike Beauregard via Flickr
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.