Let’s face it, coffee is a thirsty business. Along with cocoa, cotton, palm oil, soya, maize and rice, coffee is one of the most water-intensive commodities traded globally today.
The huge amounts of water required to ‘de-pulp’ the coffee berry depends heavily on the specific washing process employed after the harvesting of the fruit. The wet fully washed processing method, widely preferred to prepare the coffee Arabica bean for export, is the most intensive by far.
Although washing techniques have improved over the years with greater use of water reuse, up to one to six cubic metres per tonne of fresh coffee cherry is still needed. Without reuse, nearly a staggering 20 cubic metres per tonne is required. To put it another way, on average 140 litres of clean water is required in the production of coffee for every cup.
And it is a sad but inescapable fact that coffee production takes place in some of the most water stressed regions in the world, namely Africa and Asia.
In total, it is estimated that the world’s population currently requires about 110 billion cubic metres of water per year to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for coffee. This is the equivalent to one and a half times the amount of the Rhine’s annual runoff.
Now, I’m not suggesting we should all stop drinking coffee (far from it) as there are more sustainable and less water intensive alternatives available such as the dry or semi-washed method; but what if our need for a daily fresh cup of the black stuff was replaced by a much more pressing – and life saving – concern?
Last week, on Tuesday 22nd March, World Water Day was a crucial moment in the fight against the global sanitation and water crisis.
In recognition of one of the most pressing global issues in the 21st century, the theme for this year is Water for Cities: Responding to the Urban Challenge. For the first time in human history, we now inhabit a world where the majority of the world’s population live in cities – 3.3 billion people – and the urban landscape continues to grow. Exponentially.
Compounded by the impacts of climate change, conflict and lack of economic opportunity, the migration from rural to urban areas is gathering pace. Ninety five percent of urban growth will take place in the developing world over the coming decades. By 2030 around 60% of all the people in the world will be urban dwellers; of which many are living in slums conditions lacking the basic services that we in more developed countries take for granted.
This explosion in population and urban growth all points to one overriding factor; increasing demand for clean drinking water and safe sanitation.
Did you know that?
- More people have mobile phones than a toilet
- The urban poor pay up to 50 times more for a litre of water than their richer neighbours, since they often have to buy their water from private vendors
- 828 million people live in slum conditions, lacking basic services. This number grows by 6 million each year
- Households in rural Africa spend about a quarter of their working day collecting water
- Pakistan spends 47 times more on the military than on water and sanitation – it is not alone; many countries spend more on guns than on water taps
- Just one flush of a toilet uses more water than most Africans have to use in a day
- Half of all hospital beds in the developing world are full with people suffering from water and sanitation related diseases such as malaria, cholera and diarrhoea
- Diarrhoea caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation and insufficient hygiene needlessly kills 4,000 children every day
Of course, it is easy to feel depressed and at times helpless in the face of these stark statistics but the crucial point is that this global crisis can be tackled through practical, sustainable solutions. One international NGO leading the fight to provide clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene education to the world’s poorest people is Water Aid.
Today, you can help to save lives in tackling this global crisis by either visiting the Virgin Money Giving sponsorship page or going to the Water Aid website to find out more about their work, and how to get involved.
There is an old African proverb which says that – unlike the coffee berry – ‘water cannot be washed’. Enough said.