Cotton Farming: How Deep Is Your Well?

By Liza Lort-Phillips 17 September, 2014

Can cotton flourish in water scarce areas? Cotton Connect's Lort-Phillips on how to get more crop per drop

Cotton farmers have to dig deeper for water increasing energy costs but water remains free for this thirsty crop
CottonConnect's farmer training programme worked with >130,000 small farmers; 30% water savings possible
Brands need to look beyond farm water savings in their cotton strategy as it is of strategic importance to China

Each year the cotton farmers in Hebei have to dig deeper for water. Three years ago it was 80 metres, this year it’s 120 metres. But as long as the water pumps do their job that’s ok, say the farmers. For now. For while they pay a bit more each year for the electricity to drive the pump, they don’t have to pay for the water.

Water remains free for farmers of one of the thirstiest crops in the world, cotton


Yet. Herein lies a perfect illustration of the challenges that lie at the heart of China’s water issues: An alarmingly scarce natural resource that remains free at point of use for farmers of one of the thirstiest crops in the world, cotton.

This challenge is compounded by two further facts: China is the world’s largest producer of cotton, and it remains one of country’s most important crops – until earlier this year, protected by a reserve price to ensure stable supply and prices for its estimated 20 million farmers.

“China is the world’s largest producer of cotton and it remains one of country’s most important crops – until earlier this year …”

A closer look at China Water Risk’s (CWR) map of water scarcity across the country, reveals that most of China’s cotton is grown in what CWR define as the ’Dry 11’ ‘At risk 9’ and ‘Deficit 6’ provinces.Located along the river basins of the Yangtze, Yellow River and Tarim (Xinjiang), cotton needs a constant and reliable supply throughout the growing season.

However, as CottonConnect knows, simple measures can help smallholder cotton farmers in China cut their water use by as much as 60%.

In a new report, launched to coincide with World Water Week, CottonConnect, a social enterprise that works to build sustainable cotton supply chains around the world, says that basic steps to educate and train cotton farmers can have a significant impact on their water use.

CottonConnect’s worked with 130,000 smallholder farmers in the last 4 years, often resulting in 30% water savings at each farm

Through its farmer training program, the organization has already worked with more than 130,000 smallholder cotton farmers across China, India and Pakistan in the last four years, often resulting in 30% water savings at each farm it has worked with.

The report, ‘More Crop Per Drop’ explains that, by enabling farmers to invest in technologies such as rainwater harvesting or drip irrigation, savings of up to 60% can be achieved.

Change is possible, at scale. But only if more brands are willing to better understand their supply chain…

40-60% of water in a cotton t-shirt can come from these stages

While acknowledging that a number of barriers remain – not least the ability of smallholder farmers to get their hands on capital to make the necessary investments – CottonConnect says that change is possible, at scale. But only if more brands are willing to better understand their supply chain and take steps to address the water challenge.

Water use in the textile sector in China has long been a point of focus for NGOs, media, and more recently the Chinese government, but it has largely focused downstream at the manufacturing and processing stage. Less understood – but equally important – is the use of water at the growing and production end of the value chain.

Of the estimated 2,600 litres of water it can take to produce a single cotton t-shirt, anywhere between 40% and 60% of that water used takes place in the cotton fields.

And as experts at CottonConnect suggest, a cotton t-shirt made solely from areas such as Xinjiang in the Northwest of China, still heavily dependent on flood irrigation, the 2,600-litre water footprint estimate is a conservative one. Here, farmers have two water sources: the Tarim River, and groundwater; snowmelt that feeds the Tarim currently offers a (mostly) reliable source of water, but global warming means that a good snowfall is no longer guaranteed and long-term prospects are uncertain. Secondly, the water table is shrinking fast; water previously accessible to farmers at 30 metres is now only found at 80 metres.

While drip irrigation is used in about 40% of farms, flood irrigation is still needed by most farmers at least twice a year to deal with the twin challenges of dealing with cotton pests and a highly alkaline and saline soil in order to make it viable for cotton-growing.

Cognizant of the fact that it must support 20% of the world’s population with just 7% of the world’s water sources, and that it holds a reputation for being one of the least water-efficient compared to its fellow G20 countries, the Chinese government has made water efficiency and conservation a top priority, and agriculture is firmly part of this agenda.

“Retailers sourcing cotton from China will have to do more to address water issues at farm level …  it’s a strategic priority for the Chinese government”

Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect

As far as CottonConnect is concerned, the implications for the cotton sector and retail brands sourcing in China are clear. “Retailers sourcing cotton from China will have to do more to address water issues at farm level if they are to have truly sustainable supply chains, for three key reasons,” says Alison Ward, CEO of CottonConnect. “Firstly, it’s a strategic priority for the Chinese government; secondly, they face a likely growing risk from local communities targeting heavy water users. And most importantly, it is the sustainable livelihoods of cotton farmers and their communities that is at stake. They are the first to feel the direct impacts of water scarcity, and it is with them that our work must focus.”

To download ‘More Crop Per Drop’ click here

Further Reading

  • Dirty Thirsty Wars – Fashion Blindsided – CLSA report titled “Dirty Thirsty Fashion: Blindsided by China’s water wars”, examines how China’s water risks could blindside the US$1.7 trillion global fashion industry. Is this the end of fast fashion? Debra Tan expands
  • The Colour this Season is Green – Trucost’s Jackson on key discussions at the 2014 Copenhagen Fashion Summit & Global Leadership Award in Sustainable Apparel awards. On the agenda: natural capital accounting, water savings & education, all against a backdrop of limited resources & increasing demand
  • OEM: Stuck in the Middle – China National Textile & Apparel Council’s Hu Kehua on challenges ahead for textile OEMs in meeting the new textile industry standards and brands’ product needs and why joint efforts  all parties along all stages of the supply chain including design are needed to move towards a circular economy
  • Brand Rankings Through A Chinese Lens – See how global and local brands rank across 8 sectors in terms of their supply chain’s environmental impact in this review of the new Corporate Information Transparency Index (CITI) report by IPE & NRDC
  • Cotton Farming: How Deep Is Your Well? – Can cotton flourish in water scarce areas? Cotton Connect’s Lort-Phillips shares key messages from their latest report on how to extract more crop per drop and how brands need to do more than address water at a farm level in China
  • Investors Beware: Blackholes & Blacklists – Holdings of Fidelity, State Street, Vanguard, BNY Mellon, Capital Group, L&G, T Rowe Price & Govt Pension Fund of Norway in polluting fashion brands reviewed
  • The State of China’s Agriculture – China’s limited water and arable land plus rampant water pollution not only exacerbate water scarcity, but also raises concerns over food safety & food security. Get the latest update on agriculture & water and see why these policies matter for global trade
  • Heavy Metals & Agriculture – Check out China Water Risk’s overview of the status of heavy metals discharge into wastewater, priority provinces, overlap with agriculture sown lands, crops exposed and industries targeted for clean-up


Liza Lort-Phillips
Author: Liza Lort-Phillips
Liza, Director of Global Strategy and Innovation at Cotton Connect has 20 years experience working with the private, public and NGO sectors across Asia, Europe and Latin America. She joined Cotton Connect in July 2014 from her recent role as Executive Director for the Intelligence Centre for Sustainable Markets (CIMS), based in Costa Rica, a small and dynamic non-profit research organisation focused on sustainable agricultural value chains. During this time she worked with clients such as Nestle Nespresso, Walmart, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade USA to better understand, manage, and assess impacts on, their smallholder farmer supply chains. Prior to this she worked in London as Director of Supply Chain Strategy for a leading sustainability consultancy, Corporate Citizenship, advising global FMCG companies such as Mars, Kraft, Cadbury, Unilever and Diageo. Before joining Corporate Citizenship she worked as Private Sector Advisor for Save the Children UK, where she sat on the Board of Directors for the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). She began her professional career in China, initially in procurement for a European brewer, Carlsberg, in Guangdong province, moving into consumer market research as Associate Director for Market Behaviour Ltd (MBL), a British research agency working in Greater China, and latterly as Chief Representative and Director of US Public Affairs agency APCO Batey Burn, based in Beijing, advising companies on investment and sustainability strategies in China. She initiated the first joint AmCham-British Chamber conference on corporate responsibility in China in 2001. Liza is a graduate of Chinese Politics and East Asian Studies has a MSc in Environmental Technology from Imperial College London. She speaks Mandarin and Spanish.
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