Industry must do more to battle global water crisis

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Industry must do more to battle global water crisis

Related tags Water supply

Food and drink manufacturers have been warned that they must place greater focus on potential issues over water use in supply chains, after a new WWF report found that 40% of UK imports come from countries with areas of high water risk.

The WWF has urged businesses in the UK to secure their future by addressing their own role in the ever intensifying global water crisis. The world’s largest conservation organisation called for UK industry, and in particular food and drink manufacturers, to assess supply chains both within the UK and internationally to help discover where they might be at risk of water scarcity, poor water quality or reputational damage associated with their use of water.

It said that for retailers and supermarkets, food and drink manufacturers and other brands involved in food and agricultural activities, there is a great opportunity for reputational benefit “by taking proactive action to tackle water and to stand out from the market as a more sustainable choice (both in terms of stakeholder and customer communications).”

Lucy Lee, water stewardship manager at WWF-UK told FoodNavigator​ that approximately 40% of the UK’s imports by value come from countries that have hotspots of high water risks – adding that it is “essential therefore that the food and drink sector map their supply chain to identify whether the products they rely on come from water risk hotspots.”

According to the WWF data (the full report can be found here​), the most significant countries for the UK, in terms of import value, with hot spots of high water risk are China, the USA and Spain.

“Businesses must wake up to their exposure to water related risks, and also realise the potential benefits of assessing and responding to them,”​ Lee said.

The water problem

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) projects that 60% more food will be needed by 2050. In line with this rapid expansion of food production is a potential doubling of the amount of water that will be consumed through evaporation during crop production, said the WWF.

Managing water is now recognised as one of the key challenges of the 21st century, with the World Economic Forum 2015 Global Risk Report ranking water crises as the top risk to the global economy, rising from third position in 2014. Indeed, the United Nations (UN) has suggested that in 16 years the planet may meet only 60% of the global demand for water.

“Changing lifestyles (for example the shift towards increasing consumption of animal protein, the water footprint of which is much greater than a vegetarian diet) are likely to result in much higher per capita water footprints further increasing demand,” ​said the WWF in its report​.

“According to analysis by the International Food Policy Research Institute, approximately US$63 trillion ​[€56.7 tr] worth of water productivity (the net return for a unit of water used) will be put at risk by 2050 if we follow a ‘business as usual’ approach to water management practices,”​ the report claimed. “That is equivalent to 1.5 times the size of today’s entire global economy.”

Food and drink manufacturing

According to the WWF, both food commodities and processed and semi-processed foods show an overall medium water risk.

However, it noted that a country-level analysis for these product categories showed some country-specific high water risks, but these high risks were generally for sources of animal feed rather than raw materials for the food and drinks sector.

“For individual businesses, there may be hotspots of water risk in some supply chains. For example, imported fruit from southern Spain or the Western Cape of South Africa will have high water risks,”​ said the report.

The conservation organisation also warned that companies must be aware that product substitution “may simply shift the impact from one region to another.” 

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