Which Industries Use the Most Water?

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Wastewater facility

Research shows that industrial water consumption is a major drain on the world’s limited water supply. So how do industries that use a lot of water stack up in their usage habits, and which sectors are doing the most for conservation?

By 2030, water demand is expected to exceed current supply by 40%, according to the Water Resources Group, an arm of the World Bank. “In many parts of the world, water scarcity is increasing, and rates of growth in agricultural production have been slowing,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a World Water Day address in March 2012.

“At the same time, climate change is exacerbating risk and unpredictability for farmers, especially for poor farmers in low-income countries. ...These interlinked challenges are increasing competition between communities and countries for scarce water resources, aggravating old security dilemmas, creating new ones, and hampering the achievement of the fundamental human rights to food, water, and sanitation."

Although these words were spoken in 2012, their message still rings true today. Experts say that water shortages aren’t solely due to climate change — water scarcity is also caused by the mismanagement of existing water resources in water-intensive industries.

In a benchmark 2010 report titled “Direct and Indirect Water Withdrawals for U.S. Industrial Sectors,” civil engineers at Carnegie Mellon University reported that the agricultural and industrial sectors accounted for approximately 90% of direct water withdrawals. According to the United Nations World Water Development Report of 2018, this number remains largely unchanged.

Fruit and Vegetable Farming

According to the Carnegie Mellon report, while meat farming is often targeted as an energy- and carbon-intensive sector, it actually shows up lower on the list in terms of water use per dollar of economic output than fruit, grain, and vegetable farming.

Notoriously thirsty cash crops like wheat, corn, rice, cotton, and sugarcane lead the pack in water usage. For example, the report revealed that a single 5-pound bag of refined white sugar uses about 88 gallons of water, most of it from the farming of sugarcane and sugar beets. Better technology and irrigation management would go a long way toward solving some of these problems.

Many farms are investing in advanced technologies for water management. These hardware- and software-based solutions use remote sensing data and satellite images to measure factors such as evaporation and yield, identifying areas where water is being used productively and areas where it’s being wasted.

Textiles and Garments

The textile industry is one of the most water-intensive industries worldwide. For example, according to the Water Footprint Network, in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) IHE Institute for Water Education, creating a single pair of jeans requires about 2,866 gallons of water. This water is primarily used in what’s known as “wet processing,” as well as in the fabric dyeing process.

However, the textile and garment industries are starting to adopt a more environmentally conscious approach to water usage. Fashion designers such as Stella McCartney and major clothing retailers like H&M, for example, have cracked down on their supply chains, committing themselves only suppliers and farmers that adhere to sustainable practices.

Meat Production

While fruit and vegetable agriculture uses more water than meat production, the industrial meat complex still uses a lot of water.

According to a 2012 study, “A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products,” by Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra of the University of Twente in the Netherlands, “The total water footprint of animal production constitutes 29% of the water footprint of total agricultural production,” with one-third of that water being used to raise beef cattle.

Beverage Industry

The beverage sector, another water-intensive industry, produces sodas, beers, juices, and other drinks. Yet it isn’t necessarily the production and bottling processes that are to blame — it’s actually the agricultural aspect of the industry.

The beverage industry requires farmed products such as sugar, barley, coffee, chocolate, lemons, vanilla, and other plant-derived ingredients. All in all, it takes between 180 and 328 gallons of water to produce a 2-liter bottle of soda, 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer, and nearly 37 gallons of water to produce the ingredients to make a single cup of coffee, according to the Water Footprint Network.

Automotive Manufacturing

The next time you drive your car, consider this: It takes about 39,000 gallons of water to produce the average domestic vehicle, including the tires. Major water uses in the automotive manufacturing industry include surface treatment and coating, paint spray booths, washing/rinsing/hosing, cooling, air conditioning systems, and boiler use.

Industry Awareness

In recent years, these industries have become much more aware of the negative impact they have on the global water supply. The World Resources Institute, a research organization focused on sustainability initiatives and resource management, reports that over a billion people live in regions where water is scarce, and that up 3.5 billion may suffer the same fate by 2025.

Major companies that rely heavily on water for their products have started to commit to water conservation initiatives — including Coca-Cola, which is focusing on multiple levels of their vast supply chain. “Our objective is by 2020 to have safely returned to nature an amount of water equal to what we use in our production,” their website states.

Since embarking on this objective in 2004, the company has worked on 209 community water projects and has restored approximately 153.6 million liters of water back to the environment, as well as to the global communities that work for them. On top of that, in 2014, Coca-Cola was able to return about 126.7 billion liters of water through wastewater treatment.

Meanwhile, iconic jean manufacturer Levi Strauss has also begun its own sustainability initiatives; in 2005, the company co-founded the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) to improve global cotton production practices, and by 2020, Levi hopes to be sourcing 100% of its cotton through initiatives like BCI or from recycled cotton sources.

Some automotive manufacturers have also answered the call. One of the most water-conscious automakers is PSA Peugeot Citroën. While the company uses about 20 million cubic meters of water each year, it strives to clean and return all of it to the environment, purifying the water it uses at all stages of production, including cooling welding machinery, washing sheet steel, painting, and water tightness testing.

However, for the most water-intensive industries, the solution is far more complicated. The global agricultural industry, for instance, must plan for supplying food to an ever-increasing population, which is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

To address this, the last few years have seen an explosion in available resources. For example, the aforementioned World Resources Institute is one of many organizations working closely with governments, businesses, and municipalities to develop better water management strategies, which are designed to benefit businesses and the planet simultaneously. There are also a number of water metering, water accounting, footprinting, and life cycle assessment tools available.

Lastly, there has been a lot more research into creating new systems that focus on environmental integration and sustainability. In the  the U.N. outlined several nature-based systems that utilize natural ecosystems for water resource management.


This article was originally written by Tracey Schelmetic in July 2011 and was updated by Kristin Manganello in March 2019.

Image Credit: Kekyalyaynen / Shutterstock.com

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