New report shows how government, agribusinesses and retailers are failing to curb unsustainable water use in Peru

A global standard to tackle unsustainable water management in developing countries is urgently needed to help protect some of the world’s poorest communities from increased water insecurity, three development and environment organisations say today.

In a new report (3.29MB PDF), highlighted in today's Guardian newspaper, governments, investors, agribusinesses and retailers are urged to support the development of a new, robust standard for managing water resources more sustainably as the three organisations, led by Progressio, publish evidence showing how the impacts of extracting water in developing countries to produce goods for UK consumption can lead to social, health-related and economic problems, particularly for poor communities.

Lea en espanol el resumen ejecutivo (65kb PDF)

The report, highlights the case of asparagus grown for the international market in Peru’s Ica Valley, a large proportion of which is sold in the UK, in a trade worth US$230 million (£149 million) a year to the Peruvian economy. It reveals how a lack of coordinated planning and scant consideration of the long-term sustainability of water resources is threatening the water supply of a third of a million people – and may leave some of the region’s inhabitants without water in as little as 25 years.

Falling water levels

Progressio, the Peruvian Centre for Rural Development (CEPES) and research and advocacy group Water Witness International say that water levels in the Ica Valley – one of the driest places on earth – are falling dramatically. The report – 'Drop by Drop' – shows that it is not just a lack of water but a lack of responsible water management – from local government through to international investors – which is leaving poor and vulnerable communities at risk in the Ica Valley and beyond. The report highlights a growing concern about the impact of developed nations’ ‘water footprints’ – or the volume of water that is used to produce goods and services in one country which are then consumed or used in another.

In some areas of Ica wells are drying up, leading to the loss of drinking and irrigation water and throwing local livelihoods into jeopardy. In some cases, local people are surviving on as little as 10 litres of water per person per day, compared to the 50 litres specified by the World Health Organisation as the minimum needed for basic health maintenance.

The report shows that:

• The responsibility for the formidable water problems facing Ica lie in part with the Peruvian government, including “a lack of political will” to regulate water use in the valley.
• Poorly designed and unenforced water laws have permitted some agribusinesses growing asparagus for overseas markets to gain an unfair advantage in their use of local water resources, at the expense of poorer communities.
• Investors, such as the World Bank’s investment arm, have contributed to the situation in Ica by not sufficiently considering the water impacts of investment in the region.
• The production standards imposed by UK retailers importing asparagus from Ica do not adequately consider or address the impacts and future viability of water resource use in Peru.

A complex issue

The report describes the issue of water management in Ica as highly complex, requiring a considered response. It points out that buying less asparagus from Peru may result in a loss of livelihoods for poor people who rely on the asparagus industry for jobs. Instead, the report highlights the need for a step-change in the way local water resources are managed to ensure long-term social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Says Petra Kjell, Progressio’s Environment Policy Officer: “Governments, investors, agribusiness and retailers are becoming increasingly aware of social and environmental concerns associated with production of crops in developing countries and many policies or guidelines are already in place but, as this research shows, current standards have yet to capture the full impact of water usage.”

She adds: “Unsustainable water use can have a negative impact on local communities if left unchecked. This is not just an issue for the Ica Valley. Unsustainable water use is common in many developing countries and a global solution is therefore urgently needed. The need for a transparent ‘rulebook’ for managing the world’s water resources more sustainably for the benefit of the world’s poor is now critical.”

Improving standards

The report describes how an improved standard would set out a series of steps that water users must take to ensure that their water use and the catchment area they operate in are managed responsibly. In addition, it would develop a system for independent verification against the guiding principles and create a recognisable brand in the market place so that responsible water use can be rewarded by consumers, purchasers and investors.

Tim Aldred, Progressio’s Policy Manager, says: “If we genuinely want to meet the obligations of global citizenship, organisations, governments and retailers in responsible nations need to understand what the impact of their ‘water-footprint’ can mean at a local level. At the moment, the real impact of water extraction is difficult to assess and a global standard is urgently needed to increase transparency and accountability.”

The lead author of the report, Dr Nick Hepworth, Director of Water Witness International, says: “The water tragedy unfolding in this region of Peru provides a compelling case as to why we need a new global water standard as a matter of urgency. The rapid decline of the water table in Ica – almost certainly the fastest rates of aquifer depletion anywhere in the world – should set alarm bells ringing for governments, investors, agribusinesses and retailers involved in Ica’s asparagus industry. But the problem is broader. We need action now to develop a robust market based standard to ensure water is managed and used sustainably in Ica and beyond. Current water management initiatives fall well short, but the model for how private sector standards can drive progress is proven. This is a progressive, replicable solution which can benefit many developing countries.”

The social impact

This is one of the first times that the impacts of unsustainable water use linked to the UK’s ‘water footprint’ through produce grown for the UK market, has been researched in detail to highlight its social and environmental impact on developing world communities.

Progressio, CEPES and Water Witness International are calling on governments to take responsibility for ensuring that water resources are managed for the collective 'public good' of their citizens. They stress the need for developed country governments to promote effective water resource management in developing nations through their aid policies and programmes; and for retailers and investors to review and revise their existing standards to ensure that they only reward production which exploits water resources in a genuinely sustainable way.

In addition, initiatives such as that guided by the Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) to coordinate global efforts to develop a new, robust water standard need concrete and proactive support from governments, retailers and others, the report says.

Photo: Greening the desert: Agricultural fields stretch into the sands of the Ica Valley in Peru, where much of the asparagus destined for export is grown. Credit: Nick Hepworth/Progressio/Water Witness International.

Notes to editors

1. To arrange an interview with Progressio, CEPES or Water Witness International contact Progressio’s Media Officer Jo Barrett on +44 7940 703911 or +44 207 288 8619 or
2. The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. For example a can of cola consumed in the UK contains only 0.35 litres of water, yet to grow and process the sugar needed to make the cola in each can requires an average of 200 litres of water in places like Brazil or India (statistics from WWF 2008).
3. Virtual water (sometimes called hidden or embedded water) is the sum of all the water used in the production of goods which may then be exported and consumed in distant parts of the world (Allan, JA. 2003).
4. According to a 2008 report by WWF, 73% of the UK’s overseas water footprint comes from agricultural use, with 71% of this coming from food crops we import from the developing world.
5. CEPES (the Peruvian Centre for Social Studies) is a Peruvian civil-society organisation which specialises in rural development. See: for further info.
6. Water Witness International is a UK-based charity which works with developing country partners on research and advocacy to improve performance and accountability in water resource management. See: for further info.
7. The Alliance for Water Stewardship (AWS) brings together stakeholders working on water stewardship in a collaborative global effort. See for further info.