The increasing demand for water

Date : 24 April 2009

Water drives our existence and development. It dictates the location and survival of civilisations and is essential for growing food and rearing livestock. Yet few understand the role it plays and the amount of water that is required to feed our growing population, or the implications that our consumption can have on water-scarce countries.

According to the World Meteorological Organization, global water consumption increased six-fold between 1900 and 1995, which is more than double the rate of population growth. In addition to this, currently around 40% of the global population lives in water-stressed areas, and with a population increase of 3 billion people predicted by 2050, water scarcity will soon become a matter of life or death.

Agriculture is the biggest user of freshwaterGlobally, agriculture is the biggest user of freshwater accounting for 70%* of worldwide use, and this is unlikely to change as estimates point to an increased need for irrigation in the future if we are to feed a growing population.

*Source: Food and Agriculture Organization

The amount of water used in the UK

On a national level in the UK, agriculture is not the main user of freshwater. The Environment Agency estimates that it accounts for only around 3% of UK freshwater use, whereas industry and domestic households are the major users. Envirowise has calculated, that the food and drinks industry- comprising of manufacturing, retail, foodservice and wholesale – currently accounts for 307 million cubic metres of water per year. This equates to 24% of the total water used by industry and commerce, and nearly 5% of the total water used in the UK.

United Nations Population Division experts predict that water scarcity will rise to between 50 and 65% by 2025.

Depleting water supplies

It is estimated that each of us in the UK uses about 150 litres of water a day. Waterwise, an independent leading authority on water efficiency, has calculated that the level of water usage has been rising by 1% every year since 1930. This level of consumption is not sustainable in the long-term and ultimately, if we do not take action, the UK will face increased water stress in the future.

In addition to the growing level of water consumption, the past 100 years has seen the UK lose 75% of its ponds and floodplain grasslands. With this in mind, our depleting natural water supplies means that the majority of water used in the UK now comes from abroad.

Importing embedded water

Waterwise estimate that about 70% of the UK’s water footprint is from overseas. This is because the goods that the UK imports have vast amounts of embedded water within them. Embedded water refers to the amount of water required to produce a good.



An estimated 65% of the water consumed in the UK comes from food. With food imports increasing year-on-year, the consumption of imported food is draining lakes, rivers and aquifers (groundwater) in other countries.

The map below shows how embedded water within agricultural goods moves around the world. It is clear that the UK imports a high amount of embedded water and that a lot of agricultural imports are from water-scarce regions.

Global embedded water flows from the trade in agricultural products

   Global embedded water flows from the trade in agricultural products

Period: 1997-2001. Only the biggest net flows (>10 Gm3/yr) are shown.

The nations that are shown in red are net importers of embedded water and the arrows show where the product originated and ended up. (Source: Waterfootprint)

Globally, over the last 40 years, the amount of water withdrawn from lakes and rivers has doubled, and this trend is expected to continue. The World Resources Institute expects global withdrawal of water to increase by a further 35% over the next 15 years.

As well as embedded water, it is also important to consider that with a large percentage of goods coming from developing countries and regions that already suffer from water scarcity, the UK could well be depriving indigenous populations as well as putting huge burdens on their local ecosystems.

Implications for the food and grocery industry

The implications of water deprivation abroad, coupled with the fact that the products the UK imports often contain a high level of embedded water, are far reaching, not just for industry professionals, but for the consumer.

Companies are reducing their water usageIncreased media focus on water and a growing awareness of ethics, fair-trade and environmental impact, might well heighten consumer interest in the issue of water, and how water-efficient goods are.

The Economist reported in September 2008 that the bank JPMorgan believes that the five major food and beverage companies consume about 575 billion litres of water a year - enough to satisfy the daily water needs of every person on Earth. With this in mind, a number of major food and beverage companies have started setting targets to reduce the amount of water they consume, while providing access to drinking water for local communities they operate near. Nestlé Worldwide has more than doubled food production since 1997, while decreasing water consumption by 29%. In 1999, around their factory in the state of Punjab, Nestlé India initiated a project to provide clean drinking water facilities in village schools.

Volvic AfricaDanone is also running a campaign where, for every litre of water that they sell, they will generate ten litres of drinkable water in Africa. In partnership with World Vision they have committed to building and mechanising wells in a number of countries in Africa, and by the end of 2008 they aim to generate more than 1.7 billion litres of water for local communities.

The food and grocery industry is starting to employ more water-efficient techniques, such as drip irrigation and water reprocessing, to meet their own water requirements. However, the increasing demand on water is likely to go beyond direct water use, and we will need to start focusing more on the amount of embedded water within products if we are to begin to tackle potentially devastating water scarcity.