Farmers on the Front Lines of the Global Water Crisis

Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater usage. In this Q&A, the Rainforest Alliance addresses how the farmers we work with hold the key to a sustainable future.

How does water conservation fit into the Rainforest Alliance’s mission?

Water has been a focus for the Rainforest Alliance from day one, because agriculture is the largest consumer of water in the world, accounting for about 70 percent of freshwater usage globally. The way farms manage water is integral to economic, environmental and social sustainability.

What are some of the threats that agriculture poses to water?

Run-off from agriculture, whether it’s biological (like manure), or agrochemical, can poison waterways. Sustainable agricultural practices, such as those we promote through the Sustainable Agriculture Network standard, offer simple, practical solutions, such as maintaining big buffer zones, preferably planted with native trees, between farm fields and waterways. When you look at our impacts and read the studies, you’ll see that water quality consistently improves on farms that are using the best practices we promote through our training and certification work. Those impacts are consistent across all crops and geographies.

Looking ahead, has the Rainforest Alliance developed any new strategies to support farming communities in water-scarce landscapes?

Unsustainable agriculture practices lead to overconsumption of water on farms, threatening the resilience and viability of farming in regions sensitive to climate change—and reducing the amount of water available for non-agricultural uses. So our next real push where water is concerned is to improve the water-use efficiency of agricultural practices. Climate change, specifically precipitation variability, is already impacting farms. Building climate resilience is going to mean using water wisely and conserving every drop. Pumping groundwater to irrigate crops, for instance, just isn’t sustainable; over time groundwater is not a renewable resource. We are introducing low-cost solutions, like digging swales, which are essentially ditches that run along the contours of the land; they catch water and let it infiltrate and seep down back into the ground.

What are some examples of Rainforest Alliance water projects?

In Rwanda, we’ve introduced lagoon systems around some coffee washing stations to treat wastewater. In Kenya, tea farmers we work with now treat graywater before it gets released into streams. In Oaxaca, we’ve been working with young people in coffee farming communities to introduce agroforestry—the cultivation of native trees alongside coffee bushes that flourish in the shade—which is a way to stabilize the microclimate and keep water in the ground.

Why has water become such a hot topic?

The risk of water scarcity is a direct consequence of unsustainable agricultural practices, climate change, and growth in demand for agricultural commodities. And  is one of the most urgent crises facing humanity right now. None of us can survive without a consistent, safe water supply—the farming communities we work with understand that better than anyone else in the world.

Ramon nut, a sustainable superfood - photo by Sergio Izquierdo

How will we feed the 9.8 billion people who will share Earth in 2050?