Cotton uses huge amounts of freshwater yet we are all facing water shortages. Are the two linked?

According to the United Nations, by 2030 around 700 million people could be displaced by intense water scarcity and 2 billion people will live in countries experiencing high water stress. Only 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater and only 0.3% is accessible to us. So, where has all the water gone?

Uzbekistan Shortage

Uzbekistan is facing serious water shortage problems. Their population is growing at around 500 000 per year but their economy relies heavily on cotton production, which is very water-intensive. The cotton fields are irrigated by the state which has 3.7 million hectares, with cotton using 1.28 million hectares. 

The Aral Sea, previously the 4th largest lake in the world, is shrinking at an alarming rate. 


The Numbers Are Huge

It takes 10 000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton. Enough for a T-shirt and jeans.

Uzbekistan produces 1 million tonnes of cotton per year. 

That is 1 billion kg of cotton per year, which is 10 000 000 000 000 litres of water per year.

It is a number so big that is makes no sense.

So where did 90% of the Aral Sea go?

Pollution & Pesticides

Uzbekistan is not alone. It is only the 8th largest producer of cotton in the world.

Not only is the fashion industry a massive consumer of fresh water, it is also a massive polluter too.

Cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s insecticide use and 11% of its pesticide use. These toxic chemicals wash into waterways, damage the eco system and become a major source of pollution, especially in developing countries.

It is also estimated that 20% of industrial pollution comes from the treatment and dyeing of textiles with around 8 000 synthetic chemicals used. Every year those textile companies pour millions of litres of polluted water into our rivers. Given that the majority of manufacturing takes place in the developing world and these factories are located near water sources, it’s so polluted it isn’t safe for people or livestock and it kills the fish.

You may have read about Cerro Lagoon in Paraguay. Actually, you probably didn’t. It didn’t get much media attention.

Over Production and Soil Erosion

Cotton cultivation severely erodes soil quality. Most is grown on well-established fields but overproduction has led to field exhaustion and therefore expansion into new areas, thus exacerbating the problem. Conventional cotton involves fertilisers and pesticides that threaten the quality of the soil and water as well as the ecosystem downstream. These chemicals also risk the health of farmworkers and those living nearby.

Even organic cotton, the trumpeted solution of fashion brands, is possibly not as great as we think. We are told it doesn’t use the same (potentially) carcinogenic chemicals and uses less water, but is this true?

Organic cotton is a lower yield plant which means you need to plant more to get the same crop. Data from Cotton Inc. (a not-for-profit group) suggests that organic cotton uses TWICE the water to produce the same cotton yield!

Before an organic cotton garment can be stored, it needs to be dyed and finished, which is one of the most chemically intensive steps in clothes making.

So maybe we need to be more mindful of cotton clothing. 

Maybe it isn’t the ethical, sustainable material we all thought. Maybe we need to ask if water scarcity is linked to over production of cotton in an ever expanding fast fashion market that seems to be hell bent on producing as much as it can for as little as possible.

If you had to make a choice between a pair of jeans and clean drinking water, which would you choose?


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