In some parts of the world cotton production is putting unsustainable pressure on our precious and vital water resources. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where recent satellite images from NASA show a large section of the Aral Sea has, alarmingly, dried up for the first time in modern history.
The eastern basin of the Central Asian inland sea – once the 4th largest in the world – was left completely dry in August, with water levels believed to be less than 10% of what they were half a century ago.
Even more worryingly, looking at the same area just 15 years ago, in 2000, satellite imagery showed an expansive area of water in the same region. All that is left now is a graveyard of abandoned fishing trawlers, relics of a once-thriving fishing economy, and large expanses of highly salted sand, which is carried as far away as Japan and Scandinavia by winds, and is claimed to have caused numerous health problems among local populations.
So what’s happened?
Two words: cotton production.
Back in the 1950s, the region’s two major rivers were diverted to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, leaving the Aral Sea lacking vital water supplies.
Cotton is one of the thirstiest crops we farm, using 11,000 litres of water on average for each kilogram of cotton produced.1 Most cotton is irrigated, draining groundwater, lakes and rivers, threatening ecosystems, wildlife and water availability for other humans needs, as in the case of the Aral.2 Of all the water used in cotton production, up to a fifth could be used to try and dilute pollution. 
Intensive use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers in non-organic cotton production means that they can drain into water systems. Pesticides used in cotton have frequently been found in rivers, lakes and streams of cotton producing countries across the world.4 These chemicals pollute rivers and precious groundwater stores, upsetting fragile ecosystems and posing a toxic risk to wildlife and people.5
Organic cotton, quite simply, saves water. Up to 80% of organic production is rain fed rather than irrigated, so organic cotton preserves important groundwater stores.6 The water pollution impact of organic has been shown to be 98% less than non-organic cotton production.8
What’s more, organic practices require that cotton farmers keep their soils healthy – healthy soils are better at holding on to and soaking up water that comes from rain or irrigation, so organic soils make better use of water inputs and are more resilient in drought conditions.7 By eliminating the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, organic cotton keeps waterways and drinking water safe and clean.
By choosing organic cotton you can help prevent another environmental disaster like the Aral Sea from happening again. It’s something that the 60 million people that live around the Aral Sea basin and depend on it for water supplies will thank you for.
1) Chapagan, A, K., Hoekstra, A, Y., Savenije, H, H, G and Gautam, R. (2005) The water footprint of cotton consumption. Value of Water, Research Report Series No.18
2) Soth, J (1999) The impact of cotton on freshwater resources and ecosystems: A preliminary synthesis. C. Grasser and R. Salemo, eds. World Wildlife Fund.
3) Chapagan et al (2005) The water footprint of cotton consumption.
4) EJF (2007) The Deadly Chemicals in Cotton.
5) Soth, J (1999) The impact of cotton of freshwater resources and ecosystems.
6) Textile Exchange. Water Footprinting. [Accessed on 7 July 2012]
7) Niggli, U., Slabe, A., Schmid, O., Halberg, N., and Schlüter, M. (2008) Vision for and Organic Food and Farming Research Agenda to 2025: Organic Knowledge for the future. Platform Organics.
8) Torres, E, Z., Zeng, Z., Hoekstra, A, Y. (2011) Grey water footprint as an indicator of levels of water pollution in the production of organic vs conventional cotton in India. A study in collaboration with C&A, Water Footprint Network and Cotton Connect. Unpublished.
**This post first appeared on SOURCE INTELLIGENCE here.