Why is water so important to agriculture

Thirsty plants - water eater agriculture

Around the world, 70 percent of our drinking water supplies are used in agriculture. In most cases, the irrigation technology is outdated or not adapted to the conditions. The choice of crops is also based more on economic considerations than on climatic conditions. The result is high but avoidable water losses.

For example cotton and strawberries

Some products - such as cotton, rice, sugar cane or wheat - need a lot of water to be grown. For example, up to 11,000 liters of water are needed to grow one kilogram of cotton. Less than half of this amount of water is actually absorbed by the plants, the rest evaporates or seeps away from leaky channels. These so-called “thirsty crops” have therefore moved into the focus of WWF work.

Around the world, around 256 cubic kilometers of water are used to grow cotton every year. Around 44 percent of this is exported. India, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh and China together provide more than two thirds of the world's cotton production and are also Germany's top suppliers.

By importing raw cotton and cotton products, Germany leaves a footprint of 5.46 cubic kilometers every year - this corresponds to nine percent of its total agricultural water footprint abroad.

The water consumption in cotton cultivation is very high because the fields are mainly supplied with water by flooding. In Pakistan, for example, more than 90 percent of the water taken from the Indus is used in agriculture. But only about a third of it actually reaches the fields. The greater part evaporates on the way or seeps away through dilapidated irrigation canals. That is why a third of the water required to irrigate the cotton fields is already being pumped out of the groundwater.

The consequences of an even more brutal water extraction can be seen in Uzbekistan. The two tributaries to the Aral Sea, Amu-Darja and Syr-Darja, were pumped almost empty for cotton growing on a huge scale. As a result, hardly any water got into the lake from the beginning of the sixties. As a result, its water volume has shrunk by 90 percent over the past 50 years. This quadrupled the salt content in the remaining water. At the same time, the extensive use of pesticides and insecticides led to immense pollution of the groundwater. Child mortality has increased four times that of Russia.

One solution: The Better Cotton Initiative

In order to reduce the ecological consequences of cotton cultivation worldwide and to lower the use of water and chemicals, the WWF co-founded the “Better Cotton Initiative” (BCI). In addition to other non-governmental organizations, large companies such as Adidas, Ikea, Gap and H&M work together in this initiative to jointly develop a standard based on the criteria of which cotton cultivation can be made economically, ecologically and socially sustainable.

To this end, WWF has started pilot projects in India in cooperation with Ikea, among others, in which it is shown how three quarters of water and pesticides can be saved by changing cultivation methods, while at the same time the net profits of cotton farmers increase by up to 70 percent.
One of these projects was launched in 2006 in the Andhra Pradesh region with around 40 families. Today the project extends over 18 villages with a total of around 600 cotton farmers. In 2010, further “Better Cotton” pilot projects are to start in India, Pakistan, countries in Africa and Brazil, through which sufficient cotton is to be produced sustainably in accordance with the specified ecological standards.

Empty reservoirs and dry areas were the defining images of the last summer in the Mediterranean region. This is not only due to the effects of climate change, but also to a large extent due to human behavior. Low water prices and EU subsidies for water-intensive fruits such as maize or sugar beet promote an agricultural policy in the region that is at the expense of nature.

The Andalusian province of Huelva is Spain's main strawberry growing area. The plantations cover more than 5,300 hectares and supply around 95 percent of Spanish strawberries. According to estimates by the WWF, around half of this is irrigated by illegal wells. Where previously natural pine forests often grew and provided a habitat for the endangered Iberian lynx, greenhouses are now cutting up the landscape.

The WWF works locally to combat illegal water use and fights for the establishment of protective corridors for the endangered big cat.

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