Knowledge for better food systems

Water stress on food supply: Alexis Rowell

January 2009
 A rapidly growing global population and the associated industrial development have long been cited in the literature as Malthusian threats to fresh water supplies. But it is now increasingly clear that the additional problems of climate change and peak oil (the carbon cost of water) are worsening the situation. Climate change is making weather patterns more unpredictable and farming more precarious. Peak oil is making pumped and irrigated water more expensive. The combination of demographics and climate change is creating a perfect storm for fresh water supplies that threatens increasingly fragile food supply chains. NGOs like WWF and Waterwise in the UK have warned of the unsustainable amounts of virtual or embedded water needed to grow our food – 3,400 litres for the average UK citizen’s daily food requirement – and argued that, when countries like Kenya, Egypt or Australia, who are using more water than they have, export water-intensive food to the UK, then we are exporting drought to them and creating future instability. Food retailers, who sit at the apex of the food supply power structure in the UK, are only at the start of their thinking about water although most are aware of the issues. All are installing water efficiency measures in new stores for financial or environmental reasons. However the majority do not consider they have a responsibility to act beyond their immediate operations. Only two are working on water footprinting their supply chain. Only one is seriously thinking about water use by customers. A wide range of missing drivers were cited to explain the lack of action: the focus on carbon, the lack of a functioning price mechanism, the absence of customer concern, the complexity of methodologies and low government interest. The range of responses about future risks goes from those who see it as a clear threat to their business in the medium term that will have to be addressed, all the way to those who believe it will not be a threat and who say that anyway the price mechanism will sort it out if a problem does occur. There is little or no coordinated UK government policy in this domain and no real sense of urgency about water in relation to food supply, although there are signs that thinking may be changing on this. More research is needed by government to help all stakeholders understand the problem and to allow food retailers and their suppliers and customers to take the appropriate action. More negotiations are needed at the inter-governmental level to agree an international framework for pricing and/or water allocation.

Where are you based and what is your role (eg. PhD student)?

I’m based in Camden, London, where I spend my time trying to raise awareness about climate change and peak oil through politics, business and journalism. I’m a local councillor and Camden Council’s Eco Champion, I have a small climate change consultancy called cuttingthecarbon, and I have a blog ( and, having a background in journalism, I occasionally write pieces on environmental issues in the local and national press. I recently completed an MSc in Food Policy at City University as part of a general desire to broaden my approach to sustainability issues.

How did you get into food/climate research (a very very brief outline of your career/research path)?

 I had what can only be described as an eco epiphany about four years ago when I read somewhere, in The Independent I think, that the North Pole was going to melt in my lifetime whatever we did. I was completely blown away by that. I’d just come back from Greenland where I’d been selling software to the national radio and TV station. The Inuit that run the place took me whale and iceberg spotting (see photo). I had no absolutely no idea that the ice was melting and I’m not sure they did either. After I read the article about the North Pole melting in my lifetime I went into a three day depression and then decided I had to change my lifestyle. When I’d done that I decided I had to change my community and so I got myself elected as a local councillor. Because of my concern, energy and enthusiasm I was appointed the Council’s Eco Champion with a remit to suggest ways to cut the carbon out of Camden. Later I quit my day job as a business development executive in a media technology company to concentrate on climate change issues and now I’ll pretty much do anything if it increases understanding about, and/or secures action to mitigate climate change, and/or peak oil. I’ve always been interested by food and actually joined the Liberal Democrats because of Baroness Sue Miller’s excellent 2004 food policy paper “Hungry for Change”. As for the MSc in food policy – like many people I heard Prof Tim Lang speak somewhere, probably on the Today Programme, and I was hooked.

What are the aims of your research/project as they relate to food and the climate?

My course tutor, Prof Tim Lang, had been going on about water for some time, saying that it was the coming issue, and that nobody was really doing any work on it. That set me thinking. Then the soft drinks companies started talking about reducing water use in their operations and Coca Cola even announced that it was going water neutral, although I think that was more about mitigation of negative brand risk than a real commitment to the environment. Power in the food supply chain is in the hands of the food retailers. Jan-Willem Grievink showed in 2003 that the small number of supermarket buying desks was the pinch point or bottle neck in the European food supply chain. But the supermarkets weren’t talking about water. Why? Surely if water is a big problem for the food supply chain, then they need to be thinking about it. And what about the government? They weren’t doing any thinking on water in the supply chain either. So then I had my dissertation topic – What should a responsible food retailer look like in terms of water use and what are the implications for government policy?

Please describe your work – what stage it is at, when it is expected to be completed etc.

My MSc is now finished and I hope it will contribute to the policy debate. The heads of sustainability or corporate affairs of eight of Britain’s top food retailers very kindly agreed to be interviewed: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Budgens (Musgrave), Waitrose, the Co-op, M&S and Morrisons. I first asked them unprompted the question “What should a responsible food retailer look like in terms of water use?” I then showed them a list of problems derived from the literature and asked for comments. Then I suggested things that companies like theirs could do and asked what they were already doing or were thinking about doing. The conclusions were startling.


All eight of the food retailers interviewed accepted that they were responsible for their direct water use ie: business operations, and seven said they were working to reduce water use. Six of the eight interviewees accepted that they had some responsibility for water in their supply chains, but only three said they were actually doing any work with their supply chains. Only two accepted that they had any responsibility for the water footprint of customers beyond providing information and choice. Half said they could nevertheless work with customers to reduce water wastage. Only two said they had actually taken any action in this regard.

Problems arising from the literature

Six of the eight said that climate change-related water issues are or could be a problem for their business. Five said that they lacked knowledge about climate change, demographics and other water stress issues in their product sourcing regions. Five could see some or serious risk issues in the future, notably reputational but also physical or customer pressure. None said they are at the moment. Five said the cost of water either was already or would become an issue. Almost noone considered the other issues to be a red light either now or in the future. Most notably, given the underlying hypothesis of this dissertation, only three could see any future risk to UK food security due to water issues and only one of them saw it as a definite or serious risk.

Taking action

All except one of the interviewees said they could fully calculate the water footprint of their direct operations; the eighth said it would only ever be a partial measurement. However only two said they actually had the complete figures whilst four said they had partial figures. All except one said they would have problems calculating the water footprint of their supply chains. Only one thought they could calculate the water footprint of their customers and was trying to do so. All except one said they could work with their supply chains to a greater or lesser extent to make them more water-efficient but only half said they were actually doing something and none said they were doing this in a comprehensive manner. Only three said they could imagine putting an end to sourcing from water-stressed regions and all of them said it would be tough and would depend on other trade-offs eg social factors or alternative sources of supply. To date none have switched supply from a particular region because of water stress.

Obstacles and drivers

Many obstacles or missing drivers were cited to explain inaction. All said it was primarily a supply chain issue. All said there was a lack of clear methodology or that the methodology was extremely complex to apply. All except one said facts and figures, and knowing what exactly to do, were an issue. Only three mentioned the key problem of site specificity although the concern by all about the lack of a clear methodology or complexity of applying the methodology could be seen as another way to pick this point up. It was also interesting that only three mentioned the fragmented or extensive nature of their supply chains as an obstacle, although again, this could be to some extent a question of interpretation of the issue raised about applying water footprinting methodology. Three quarters of those interviewed said there were no civil society drivers ie customers were not complaining about water issues and NGOs were not complaining loudly enough. Six of them cited the lack of a strong price signal as an obstacle to action. One went so far as to predict that there would be no threat to UK food supply because UK food retailers pay top prices and will therefore always be able to guarantee supply. Five said the current focus on carbon was their primary concern or was constraining their ability to act on water. Six of the interviewees said the focus on other sustainability measures or understanding the trade-offs with other sustainability measures was an obstacle.

Government policy

There were not many suggestions for government action and several interviewees were adamant that government action, in the form of additional regulations, would be unacceptable. Four of those interviewed said the government should coordinate the use of standard methodology and promote joined up thinking in the context of general sustainability issues. Three felt the government should raise awareness and put out clear messages.


 The UK government is doing little because it does not believe there is currently a problem and expects the market to solve any problems if they emerge, although there are some signs that parts of the government are starting to change their thinking. The food retailers are not doing much because there are no urgent drivers for action. They claim they do not have enough information, the methodology is too complicated, there is no cost/price driver for the moment, it is not their problem, they are focused on carbon and other sustainability issues, civil society – primarily their customers – is not asking for action, and the government is not issuing guidance or setting regulations in this area. Some parts of civil society – NGOs like WWF and Waterwise, and academics like Allan, Hoekstra, Molden et al – have done considerable work on different parts of the problem, but do not seem to have persuaded the majority of the food retailers or the government of the need to take action. In the case of WWF, as they themselves admit, it may be that the fact that they are acting as water footprinting consultants for businesses is diluting the strength of their message. Nor does their work appear to have filtered down to the public, possibly because of other sustainability issues that are easier to understand or are perceived to be more important. Arguably nobody has comprehensively pulled together the traditional and new stresses on fresh water supply and made the case for action strongly enough. What are the big questions you feel you are seeking to answer at the moment? What came out of this particular piece of research was some recommendations for food retailers which I split into easy to do and harder to do.

The easy stuff

Calculate company the water footprint of direct operations. Do a cost benefit analysis of retrofitting water efficiency measures. Require water efficiency measures in new build.Map water efficiency actions being taken by supply chain. Share best practice among suppliers and farms. Work with farms wherever feasible to make agriculture more efficient eg drip methods of irrigation, repair of leaks, collection of rainwater where this does not cause problems further downstream. Work with government and customers to reduce water wastage wherever possible.Lobby government for standard methodology, clear messages and joined up thinking.

The hard stuff

Lobby government to review traditional global water risks by region eg demographics (growing population), richer population (more meat and dairy), development (urbanisation, pollution), lack of agreement on how to price of water and how to define ownership, and then overlay climate change predictions with regard to water eg too little water (lack of rainfall, long term end of glacier water supply), too much water (flooding, hurricanes), the wrong water (salinity due to sea level rises, overflowing sewers).Commission product water footprints for water risky areas based on 1). The methodology exists ( There is no need to measure every product water footprint; only the risky ones. Make sure your supply chain understands the risks. Where possible try to help them prepare for more variability and more intensity in weather patterns eg hurricanes, flooding or drought. Prepare a contingency plan for breakdown of supply. Prepare a strategy for permanent withdrawal from water stressed regions if local stakeholders are clearly pursuing an unsustainable path. The assumption should be that civil society will push on this eventually implying brand risk for you.My conclusions for government policy were as follows: Help UK businesses with facts and figures Commission research of traditional global water risks by region, then overlay climate change predictions with regard to water.Coordinate the use of standardised water footprint methodology. The combination of the above should allow businesses to be able to overlay their own product water footprints in water risky regions, to draw the necessary conclusions and to take action. Work for proper pricing or allocation of water in the UK and abroad Nowhere in the world is water is priced or allocated coherently. Every study says so. The literature on water pricing often confuses costs, opportunity costs, value, and price (Goldman Sachs 2008). Externalities like scarcity, climate change risks, salinity and pollution are rarely included (Le Quesne et al 2007). Green water and blue water have different values at different times on different sites (Hoekstra et al 2005). Benefits realised from water quality and treatment services are very site specific and difficult to quantify (Bann et al 2008). Pricing water at its true value ie including all externalities is likely to lead to increased poverty unless a progressive tariff structure is used, which leads some to say that pricing cannot work and that water needs to be allocated (Le Quesne 2007).And/or negotiate international rules on water use There exists a multitude of confusing ways to allocate water rights. Governments need to work together to produce a coherent framework or agree to build on one already in existence. Most of the world’s major rivers cross international borders, but are not covered by treaties. In the words of Fred Pearce: “This is a recipe for conflict and for upstream users to hold downstream users to ransom.” Some argue that the reason there have not been significant water wars in the Middle East, an area which is no longer self-sufficient in water, is because countries have cooperated on this issue (Allan 2002). Under this scenario nations see negotiated settlements over water rights as preferable to war and should be amenable to arbitration by an International Water Court or perhaps a beefed up World Water Council, which is already an international multi stakeholder platform. Its stated mission is “to promote awareness, build political commitment and trigger action on critical water issues at all levels, including the highest decision-making level, to facilitate the efficient conservation, protection, development, planning, management, and use of water in all its dimensions on an environmentally sustainable basis for the benefit of all life on earth.”Water aid as a key plank of foreign policy Western discussion of Pakistan focuses on Islamist militancy, and dictatorship versus democracy. In the long term however, by far the greatest threat to Pakistan's survival as a state comes from water shortages stemming from demographics, development and climate change. Global warming is melting the glaciers that feed Pakistan's irrigation system. First the country will flood, and then it will dry up (Rowell & Lieven 2008). Pakistan and other endangered countries need massive help and encouragement to improve their water conservation systems and reduce the present appalling level of waste. British international aid should be restructured to make addressing climate change and improving water conservation its central priority. Is there any expertise you feel you lack and would you welcome help/collaboration with others? And what are your plans for the immediate future as regards this work? I would like to see a number of things happen: I’d like the food retailers to start thinking about this. This is beginning to happen. I did a very good seminar at one of the food retailers recently based on this research.
I’d like to see the government seriously engaging on this agenda and if anyone can point me in the direction of the right people to talk to in government then I would like to try to talk to them. I think they need to help by commissioning some basic research on water trends in the global food supply chain.
I would like to see NGOs becoming more strident on this issue. It’s harder than carbon but just as important. NGOs need to establish clear messages that the media and individuals can understand. That’s the only way the supermarkets will act – if their customers start telling them it’s important.

Contact details

Email Alexis