Every year, Ancient Egyptians interrupted their familiar rhythm to praise Hapi. Popular up and down the kingdom, and known as the Lord of the Fish and Birds of the Marshes, this androgynous figure with a prominent belly was worshipped as the god of the annual Nile flood. Armed with amulets, peasants would throw their offerings into the river, asking Hapi to grant them a good flood. Without one, they knew, their families would starve, something made explicit in surviving Egyptian prayers. ‘Hail to thee, O Nile!’ went one. ‘Who manifests thyself over this land, and comes to give life to Egypt! Come and prosper!’

Food has always been impossible without water – and what the Ancient Egyptians understood thousands of years before Christ, countless other civilisations have themselves embraced. The Ganges remains a focal point for millions of Hindus, while Buddhists see water as the purest form of food, needed for all others and freely available to all. Yet if the spirit of Hapi endures, not least on £5 Egyptian banknotes, the relationship between food and water is getting more and more strained. As agrifood has ballooned into a $8.67tn business, water consumption has too, with more than 70% of the world’s freshwater resources now deployed for agricultural purposes. It goes without saying, meanwhile, that any disruption to global water supplies could make the worries of the Ancient Egyptians look mild, as farmland dries up and supermarket shelves go empty.

The percentage of global freshwater resources now deployed for agricultural purposes.
World Bank

Once you factor in broader climatic pressures – thanks partly to global warming, roughly half the world’s population lack enough water for at least some of the time – and no wonder experts are so anxious about the problem. As Adrian Sym explains: “Excessive water use can have various negative environmental consequences, both locally and on a broader scale.” That’s doubly true, stresses the CEO at the Alliance for Water Stewardship (A4WS), when agricultural water pumping can actually make climate change worse, exacerbating the very factors that make freshwater so rare. Yet the situation isn’t hopeless. With new technologies at their back, coupled with thoughtful data management, growers and manufacturers the world over are drastically cutting the water they use, with happy consequences for their neighbours and the planet.

The number of litres of factory water that Danone reused in 2023.

Water big burden!

Everyday agricultural staples require a bewildering amount of water. Consider the humble potato. According to one estimate, a single kilo of spuds needs about 250 litres of water to grow. Given even small countries such as Britain plant vast amounts of the starchy vegetables each year, you can soon see how water use can spiral, something that’s certainly true for the world’s biggest agrifood players. “For Danone,” says Alfredo Zein, the multinational’s water science, stewardship and processing director, “roughly 90% of our water footprint is coming from ingredients we source from agriculture, compared to less than 1% for the water we use in our products and in our factories to manufacture our products.” Nor is this bonanza hard to appreciate: with populations soaring from Indonesia to the Congo, we’ll collectively need 60% more food by 2050.

Yet if the agrifood sector is clearly necessary, water use can cause a world of problems. On a basic level, that encompasses over-consumption: droughts from Arizona to Jordan can partly be explained by agricultural demand. As Sym stresses, however, excessive water use can have desultory second-order consequences too. At a local level, for instance, he says that “over-extraction of freshwater” can damage aquifers, a problem exacerbated by over-irrigation and agrochemical runoff. That’s clear enough in practice: in the Spanish province of Almería, to give one example, the local flamingo population is threatened by encroaching greenhouses and other kinds of water pollution.

As the plight of the Spanish flamingos suggests, the impact of agricultural water use is necessarily local. “It is important,” says Sym, “to note that water risks and impacts are incredibly dependent on context,” adding that a farm growing “thirsty crops” in a waterstressed region is obviously more dangerous than a neighbour planting drought-resistant crops and leaning on efficient irrigation. Perhaps for that reason, agrifarm insiders are careful to first understand the difficulties of particular ecosystems before springing into action. Especially for the largest players, that can be tough. Boasting some 100,000 employees spread across 130 countries – even as supply chain partners outnumber actual staff by seven to one – Zein unsurprisingly says that gathering the relevant data at Danone isn’t always easy.

Liquid gold

In the first instance, Zein and his colleagues rely on outside support. Joining a scheme called the Water Footprint Network, it brings together agrifood companies, external experts and donors to calculate the amount of water consumed for every kilo of Danone produce grown, even as the the vagaries of location and climate are also factored in. From there, Danone can start thinking about targeted solutions – and here too subtlety is the order of the day. Implementing what he calls a “multi-local” approach, Zein offers the example of Indonesia, where reforestation is helping protect the Rejoso watershed. On the far side of the Pacific, meanwhile, Danone’s operations in Mexico have swapped traditional floodbased irrigation for drip equipment, along the way drastically cutting evaporation and run-off.

The French giant isn’t alone here. Wherever you look, Danone’s agrifood competitors are moving in a similar direction, with everyone from Arla to Bayer eager to flex their sustainable muscles. But focusing on purely internal operations – or even external suppliers – simply isn’t enough here. As Buddhists understand, water is by definition a shared resource, and the failure of a single farmer to take their water responsibilities seriously can quickly spark problems downstream. The solution? For Sym, it can be characterised by a single phrase: water stewardship. “For the agrifood sector,” he explains, “stewardship of water means thinking beyond the fence line and working with others to understand and address the broader, longer-term impacts of their water use.” The AWS Standard 2.0 is an excellent example of this approach. A verifiable standard for sustainable water use, it offers farmers, factories and other agrifood players what Sym calls a collective “plan-do-act framework” of action, even as independent auditors verify compliance. The point, stresses the A4WS boss, is to improve water management right across a catchment area, through a mix of what he calls “dialogue and open communication.”

Once again, Danone offers a vivid idea of what this collaborative approach looks like on the ground. As far back as 1992, it co-founded a special association for the protection of the Evian watershed, partnering with 13 local municipalities to do so. In Indonesia, locals are encouraged to take a greater role in governing community water supplies, while Danone is also running educational schemes with farmers and schools. And as the company’s investment in drip irrigation implies, new technology can be a real boon here too. Elsewhere, Zein describes the power of so-called ‘decision support systems’ (DSS), computerised platforms that help Danone craft irrigation schedules.

How much more food we could need to feed rising global populations .
The Guardian

Pour one out

What can be in no doubt is the impact of these varied schemes. At Danone, after all, Zein notes that the firm reused a billion litres of factory water in 2023 alone, with tree plantations (India), municipal football fields (Mexico) and street cleaners (China) all making use of repurposed H2O. That’s shadowed by watershed preservation: some 45% of the water intake in vulnerable areas worked by Danone is now covered by a stewardship programme, with aims to reach 100% by 2030. R&D is proving revolutionary too. In Morocco, for instance, Danone is running a scheme to feed dairy cows on plants that require less water, with similar projects also underway in Mexico and California. Once again, Zein and his team are far from unique here: Cargill has committed to restoring 600 billion litres of water by the end of the decade, with BASF aspiring to something similar.

And with climactic pressures as strong as ever, it makes sense that both Zein and Sym should agree similar work will continue in future. “As awareness grows of the relationship between water and climate change and the ever-escalating series of water risks, water stewardship is becoming more prominent as a pathway towards climate resilience and mitigation,” is how the A4WS executive puts it, noting that his organisation is aiming to revise the AWS Standard 2.0 for future challenges. Zein sees the environmental case for water stewardship as indistinguishable from Danone’s broader business. “For a food company like Danone, whose ingredients come from nature, water management is a top priority.” It’s a statement those ancient Hapi worshippers would surely appreciate.