Water Footprints: Lessons From Kenya’s Cut Flower Sector

When addressing sustainability in global supply chains, the challenge is to manage and minimise the negative impacts

water footprint of cut flowersThere are flowers to fit every occasion. But if you are celebrating World Water Week (26-31 August), you might want to think twice. A single rose – grown in Kenya, as many of the world’s cut flowers are – takes around 10 litres of water to produce, with the so-called water footprint, or virtual water export, of Kenya’s floriculture industry having more than doubled over the past 15 years, mostly to supply the Netherlands (69%), the UK (18%) and Germany (7%).

This notion of virtual water – the water embedded in the things that we trade – is gaining visibility as awareness of our global water crisis increases.

I remember first getting to grips with the idea a few years ago when I interviewed Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry, for the University of Cambridge Top 50 Sustainability Books project. According to his calculations, to get us through the day, it takes about a hundred times our own weight in water.

Of course, water footprints are not the only impacts we find in our global supply chains. There are issues of labour rights, climate change, transparent governance, biodiversity loss and economic development, to mention but a few. The challenge is to manage and minimise the negative impacts. This is where I believe the example of Kenya’s cut-flower industry can help us to tease out some hard-won lessons, starting with the story behind the Horticultural Ethical Business Initiative (HEBI).

Most encouragingly, Kenya’s convoluted and painful journey to creating their multi-stakeholder sector code has set a benchmark for other standards, like the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), to learn from and emulate. It has also inspired complementary programmes like The Floriculture Sustainability Initiative, part of the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), which aims to accelerate and up-scale sustainable trade by building impact oriented coalitions of front running multinationals, civil society organisations, governments and other stakeholders.

So, yes, flowers do have footprints. But perhaps, if we learn from Kenya’s experiences, we can lighten the tread and ensure those footprints are heading in a more sustainable direction.

Source: The Guardian Abbreviated (By Wayne Visser)

Not many people give much thought to how much water is needed to produce the products on their supermarket’s shelves.  A consumer awareness of environmental footprints and water footprints and their subsequent choices of products produced more sustainably (and with less water) will gradually steer producers in the right direction.  Did you know that it takes 140 litres of water to produce enough coffee for one cup?  Also see Water Footprints: How Much Water In Your Food?

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