New data reveals rich countries’ shocking reliance on water beyond their borders

+ High-income nations like UK, USA, Japan and the Netherlands dependent on water from beyond their borders to produce their goods- new analysis traces these water footprints to areas of the Global South facing extreme water insecurity

+50% of the water, from rivers and aquifers, used within the external water footprints of high-income economies is unsustainable, driving resource depletion, ecosystem degradation, conflict and climate vulnerability

+70% of UK’s water footprint is external – 40% of it unsustainable

+ Unsustainable water footprints lock Global South communities into climate vulnerability, while threatening the viability of global supply chains

+ The UN Water Conference this week must ensure accountability for responsible use by the businesses and investors behind these supply chains, and put in place a new UN Convention for Equitable and Sustainable Water Use in the Global Economy

Shocking new data from Water Witness International published on World Water Day, the opening day of the first UN Water Conference in almost 50 years, finds that half of global water use from rivers and aquifers to supply the food and goods consumed by high-income economies is not sustainable.

Rich nations across the world – including the UK – are profoundly dependent on water use beyond their borders to grow crops and produce goods through their  ‘water footprints’.  Water Witness’ research shows that Global North economies typically rely on external water to meet between 40% to 80% of their total water needs, with this dependency steadily increasing.  

Analysis suggests that half of the ‘blue water footprint’- water from rivers, lakes, and aquifers – used to produce crops and goods for the Global North is unsustainable, and a primary driver of resource depletion, ecosystem degradation, and conflict.  As well as locking communities into climate vulnerability, such high levels of unsustainable water use present massive risks to important global supply chains.

The data reveals:

  • The Netherlands- co-hosts of the UN Water Conference beginning in New York today- has the highest external water footprint at 94%, with 37% of that coming from unsustainable sources
  • Japan has the overall highest rate of unsustainable use, at 61%, followed by Canada at 56%, USA at 48%, France at 45% and the UK ranking in fifth place at 40%
  • 52% of the EU’s blue water footprint is unsustainable. Almost all this unsustainable use falls in places with significant or severe water scarcity

Research in Peru by Declaration founding organisation Water Witness finds that the production of asparagus, avocados, and fresh produce for supermarkets in the USA and Europe drives rapid aquifer depletion, conflict between water users and water scarcity for thousands of people. Mining for export markets also causes severe pollution, climate vulnerability and resource conflict.

In Madagascar – the largest exporter of clothing to the EU and USA from sub-Saharan Africa- communities face water pollution and preferential water provision to factories making fast fashion. Meanwhile in Malawi, key export sectors of sugar, tea and tobacco share high levels of water insecurity with communities and in some cases have dramatically increased the impacts of flooding linked to climate change.

Commenting on the data, Dr Nick Hepworth, Executive Director of Water Witness International, said:

“This new research lays bare the injustice at the heart of the global water crisis. The richest people on earth are exploiting the water needed by the poorest, leaving aquifers drained, rivers polluted, and communities less able to cope with climate change – also caused by the world’s wealthier nations, many of whom have cut international aid for water.

“The report should be rocket fuel for getting meaningful action this week in New York. Strategic supply chains which provide much needed jobs and export revenue are at risk because of the ongoing abuse of water in the global economy.  

“There’s a real glimmer of hope via the Declaration for Fair Water Footprints, led by the governments of Austria, UK, Finland, Malawi, Peru and Madagascar.  It commits Signatories to zero pollution, sustainable use, water and sanitation for all, protection of nature, and drought and flood planning in supply chains by 2030.  Delivering on these promises is exactly what we need to put water stewardship at the heart of the global economy.

”As the UN Water Conference begins, we’re asking world leaders to end the abuse of water in our supply chains by committing to fairer water footprints. Voluntary commitments are not enough, and action needs to be backed by a new, enforceable UN Convention for Equitable and Sustainable Water Use in the Global Economy.”

Cate Lamb, Global Director of Water Security at CDP, said:  

“This report puts the water risks facing the global economy into sharp focus. Transformative action to ensure sustainable water use and to end pollution across all water intensive sectors is needed right now. This week’s UN Water Conference is a unique moment where member states urgently need to raise ambition and political will to tackle this global crisis head on.” 

Sareen Malik, Executive Secretary of the African Civil Society Network for Water and Sanitation (ANEW), said:  

“From textiles and mining to food production and agricultural commodities, Africa’s potential is being eroded by unethical business practices. Trade with Africa must no longer be based on the overexploitation of our natural resources, poor conditions for our workers, or climate vulnerability within our communities.  

“We don’t necessarily need to reduce our water footprints – instead we need to make sure they are sustainable and fair. This can only come through radically stronger accountability for responsible water use by businesses and supermarkets, as well as the banks and trading partners behind these thirsty and polluting supply chains.  The Declaration for Fair Water Footprints is leading the way, but it needs others at the UN Water Conference this week to join up, to take action and to be accountable so that everyone has access to the water they need.” 

Catherine David, Director Collaboration and Change at WRAP, said:

“Today’s report from Water Witness is an important and timely contribution towards improving the resilience and sustainability of our global supply chains. 

“The WRAP Water Roadmap for water security in food and drink supply has brought together more than 60 organisations, including the UK’s biggest supermarkets to support better water stewardship in the UK’s sourcing hotspots, both at home and overseas.  Many of the solutions set out in the Water Roadmap are at hand, such as collective action projects in high-risk catchments – they simply require new investment and dedicated leadership to put in place.  We’re proud to announce that we will be signing the Declaration for Fair Water Footprints this week and we urge countries, companies and banks to join this global leadership effort.”