The agricultural sector is the single largest user of water, representing 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals and up to 90 percent of national water use in some countries. An estimated 40-60 percent of that water is wasted through inefficient irrigation systems and other substandard practices. In addition, unsafe, inefficient and ineffective chemical-use pollutes rivers, streams, soils and aquifers and threatens human health.
Exacerbated by climate change and a rapidly growing population, conventional water-use practices have resulted in scarcity and contamination that threaten both local communities and ecosystems, as well as the global economy.
The crisis has fostered a growing consensus that freshwater conservation and management is one of the world’s most urgent environmental challenges.
To address this, the Rainforest Alliance helped to create the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), an international body that manages a comprehensive sustainability certification program for more than one million farms.
The SAN requires producers to meet strict standards that protect the environment, the rights and welfare of workers and the interests of local communities in order to obtain Rainforest Alliance certification. Water related criteria in the SAN standard include:
* The establishment of protected zones around rivers and other natural waterways to prevent erosion, agrochemical drift and runoff
* Minimum distances between crops and aquatic ecosystems
* Respect for natural water channels (e.g., not creating new drainage or irrigation canals)
* Natural vegetative cover over water channels
* Appropriate wastewater treatment systems
* Prevention of the discharge of organic or inorganic solid waste in natural water bodies
Most importantly, farmers maintain forest cover in and around their farms, allowing the soil to retain water and recharge groundwater. The Rainforest Alliance trains farmers to implement these practices, which in turn create a more sustainable business model for each farm — proving that clean, healthy waterways can coexist with economically viable working landscapes.
Every day we see the impacts of improved management on waterways and ecosystems around the world. In Colombia, Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee farms scored significantly higher than noncertified farms on a stream-health index, demonstrating higher levels of dissolved oxygen and larger numbers of sensitive macroinvertebrates such as mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies — species whose presence indicates ecosystem health.
Across the Atlantic in Côte d’Ivoire, a 2012 study of cocoa farms showed that certified farms implemented more water-protection measures than noncertified farms. When the streams that flow through these farms were examined for signs of erosion, certified farms performed consistently better than their noncertified counterparts.
And on a tea farm nestled in the rugged mountains of China’s Yunnan Province, President and co-owner Yunyan Huang has worked since 2009 to improve the practices on her 2,400 acre Green Fountain Tea Estate. Today, it is a model of water stewardship in a region with a highly variable microclimate that has been plagued by periods of drought in recent years.
“We hope to serve as a role model to other farms, demonstrating the benefits that certification brings to the environment, workers, and our livelihoods,” Yunyan says. In 2013, her farm became China’s first to achieve Rainforest Alliance Certification.
In the face of the pressing challenges of water consumption worldwide, these stories show how we can create a stronger global environment and economy together.
Interested in seeing the Rainforest Alliance’s work with water in action? Click here to watch a short clip of how the Rainforest Alliance is helping to bring clean water to tea producing communities in Rwanda.
Rachel’s Network Liaison Tensie Whelan, President of the Rainforest Alliance, has been working in the environmental field for more than 25 years. She has served as vice president of conservation information at the National Audubon Society, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, and management consultant to nonprofits like the Environmental Defense Fund.