Importing Goods, Exporting Drought

This evening I attended a debate at the Royal Geographical Society which was part of their 21st Century Challenges series, it was entitled:

Importing  Goods, Exporting Drougt – The true hidden cost of what we consume”

The evening was chaired by George Alagiah, the presenter of the BBC’s six o’clock news.

George began the evening by recounting a personal encounter he had while filming for his recent television series on the future of food. He stated that water security plays a key role in the future of food production.

While filiming in Kenya he came across a Maasai herdsman whose area had suffered four years of drought. This farmer had gone from 100s of head of cattle down to 35.  George then visited a commecial farm in the same area, suffering from the same drought that was exporting peppers and french beans to British supermarkets 364 days a year. This farm was extensively irrigated. What makes the situation even worse is that the farmer at the farm producing for export said the previous week his half tonne delivery of produce had been rejectered by the exporter because there was some soil on the produce.

This small antedote sets the scene for the rest of the dabate and introduces the demands we make on our food chain and water security.

There needs to be a discussion over whose job it is to do something:

  • Business?
  • Individuals?
  • Governments?

Robin Farrington – WWF

We all live at the at the water’s edge whether by the side of a river or through the end of a pipe. Water is used to norrish crops and produce energy.

– Global water crisis is drivng by population growth and increase in industrialisation.

-Less than 0.5% of water on the earth’s surface is available for human use.

-There are many examples of how water scarsity is causing problems, in 1997 the Yellow River did not run for 267 days.

-He also showed an image of Lake Chad, and how it has shrunk from 1963 to 2001.

taken from
– Why are the lakes and rivers drying up? There are a number of factors: More water being used, deforestation causes soil run off and blocking rivers, sea water then infils underground aquifers.

– Climate change is going to make this worse as half of the world’s population rely on water from glacier melt from the tiebetan plateau.

-The human response is usually to redirect water but this causes more damage than good.

-In India the Indus river is not reaching the san and this is causing salt water intrusion. This has an effect on biodiversity. Both the Indus river dophin and the Yangtse river dolphin are nearly extinct.

-Freshwater rivers and wetlands cover less than 0.1% of the earth’s surface but contain 40%of its species.

– The global water crisis will not effect the entire world equally; it will hit a vertical band covering the equater and just north which covers two thirds of the world’s population. This is the area with the greatest population increase and where most water is grown.

– In 2050 the world’s population will be seven billion people, seven billion will be living in water scarcity.

– The Waterfootprint of the average person in the UK is 4,645 litres per person per day. 150 litres is household use, the rest is from outside the household. 38% comes from inside the UK the rest is imported. We are therefore contributing to the problems in poorer areas of the world.

-There is a need for a new water stewardship ethic:

  • Protect rivers and groundwater, laws are to be suffcient to ensure they protect the wildlife.
  • Better agriculture to limite abstraction.
  • Corperate stewardship – increasing production while reducing water use.
  • Transboundary agreeements on water use.
  • Standards on dab sites, construction and oporation.
  • A strong, well resourced and politically independent institution that protects the needs of the poor

-Water create’s life and supports cultural rituals.

Andy Wales – Head of Sustainable Development SAB Miller – Brewers

– SAB Miller has 200 brands, 150 breweries, 34 bottling plants and operates on six continents.

– Have 10 sustaniability principles, number 2 is “the need to brew more beer but using less water” Full list of their principles here.

-They have a 5 R’s water model:

  1. pRotect
  2. Reduce
  3. Reuse
  4. Recyle
  5. Redistribution

– On average it takes their breweries 4.5 litres of water to male 1 litre of beer, industry average is just over five. They are aiming to become 25% more water efficient by 2015.

– The concept of ‘Water Footprinting’ covers the whole supply chain from Crop Cultivation to Crop Production to Brewing to Distribution.  SAB Miller have produced a water footprinting report.

-Water use is not equal, in South Africa it takes 155 litres of water to produce a litre of beer, 95% is used in agriculture, whereas in the Czech Republic it is 45 litres.


Notes from Q+A Session

– Visible water use is tiny, e.g. washing reusable bottles compared to upstream use, e.g. agriculture.

– Pricing water is very difficult as often people have the rights to it and it’s hard to monitor. Typically though when farmers pay for water they pay 1/50 of the cost that industry like SAB Miller pay, this gives farmers less incentive to be efficient.

– It is very difficult to know what the replenishment rate for aquifers is so don’t know if whether aquifers are being recharged or not.

-By being water responsible SAB Millere is able to expand as they more likely to be granted planning permission, e.g. their new plant in Australia must use less than 3 litres per litre of beer.

Closing Remarks

Robin – Water is a locak resource to be managed locally. Water management must be done on a catchement / river basin level.

Andy – Water is an issue that is geniunely underdiscussed and must be debated.

these are my rough notes and may contain errors / misquote the speakers.

Categories: Geography