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We all drink downstream

Last week, SCAA gave me the opportunity to talk about water and coffee at its annual Symposium in Seattle.

For my first contribution to the Coffeelands blog, I want to give a brief synthesis of last week’s presentation, which serves as a great intro to water and the coffeelands.


9 million people in Central America depend on water from the coffeelands



In 2015, the World Economic Forum highlights water crises among the most critical threats to global economic and social development.

What characterizes the global water crisis is an issue of supply and demand. The demand for water has increased exponentially over the past century as a function of population growth and economic development. At the same time, water supply is diminishing due to land degradation, water contamination, and unsustainable extraction of groundwater.

A main driver for the water crisis is agriculture. Agriculture is by far the single biggest user of water resources: 70-80% of water used by humans is for irrigation and agriculture is the single biggest threat to water resources due to (a) land degradation and (b) contamination from soil erosion, fertilizers and pesticides.



Historically, coffee has been blamed (rightfully) for driving deforestation and for contaminating water sources in the coffeelands.

Coffee production negatively impacts water resources when poor agricultural practices cause erosion and when agricultural inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) are improperly used and contaminate water.

Coffee processing can pollute water supplies when organic solids are discharged from mills. We covered this issue here and described this process in detail in this article in The Chronicle.



But there is another side to this story. There are some unique reasons why coffee, and particularly specialty coffee, should be seen as part of the solution to water crises in the coffeelands.

  • Locally, communities in coffee growing areas depend on the flows from coffee-based watersheds for their drinking water.
  • Globally, coffee consumers around the world are drinking coffee from beans that flows from these watersheds.
  • So the coffee community (growers, coops, traders, roasters, retailers and consumers) are part of local and global community connected through the water and the coffee they drink.

In this sense, we all drink downstream. And we are all connected in a very real way to these same mountains and streams. Your morning cup of joe has everything to do with drinking water in the coffeelands.

The main reason that coffee should be seen as part of the solution to the coffee crisis is that the alternatives to coffee are far worse.

In fact, there is no agricultural system better than shade grown coffee for regulating water resources. Well managed shade-grown agroforestry systems function like natural forests. And good coffee management is good watershed management.

And this is what we understand by Blue Harvest, a concept that I shared in an interview for this blog.



To better understand the scale of coffee’s impact on water, we are working with CATIE in Costa Rica on a GIS study. The first phase analyzes three layers of data:

  1. coffee growing areas of Central America,
  2. all known drinking water sources, and
  3. population data.

Using conservative assumptions, we estimate that 9 million people across six counties depend on coffeelands for their drinking water. We are translating this report and will publish it here soon.



  1. Manage soil to manage water

Soils are severely degraded in most coffee growing areas. Soil has been treated like dirt to everyone’s peril, but particularly to farmers. Farmers in the coffeelands are suffering their own Dust Bowl, but their soils are washing out to sea rather than blowing across the prairies. Coffee farms are less productive than they should be because soils are so degraded, and plants are far more susceptible to disease and drought precisely because soils lack the nutrients and moisture to stay healthy. At a landscape level, degraded soils lead to flashfloods and landslides as the land and vegetation lose their capacity to capture and store water. As a result, rivers run dry out in the dry seasons.

Soil restoration is needed for coffee production, and it’s also needed for water management. So coffee roasters and buyers that want to build sustainable supply chains and promote good water stewardship should support farmers to restore and manage their soils.

  1. Protect drinking water sources

We have been analyzing specialty coffee certification standards to identify how they could be strengthened to protect drinking water supplies. What we found is that farms and mills can have multiple certifications but still threaten people’s water due to range of factors (see our report presented at SCAA 2013). What we propose is that standards be upgraded to specifically protect drinking water sources.

We also recommend that supply chain actors apply a Water Impact Assessment Tool for farms and mills, which simply asks “Is there a potential threat to a water source?” If the answer is yes, then farmers are millers identify each threat, and then define a mitigation strategy for each threat. This simple tool would serve for both planning and monitoring activities.

  1. Measure what matters – make sure standards make a difference

Certification standards focus primarily on encouraging and monitoring “best management practices”, but there is a dearth of reliable analysis on the actual impacts of applying standards. But one rigorous study by Cenicafe in Columbia shows that farms certified by Rainforest Alliance improved downstream water quality compared to similar farms that were not certified. One key takeaway from this study is how important it is to measure water quality and flows in order to understand what is happening on the farms and in the rivers.

  1. Use less water in coffee mills

Technologies and designs for water efficient mills are well known and proven. But less than 15% of coffee mills around the world apply these technologies. This has to change.

One barrier to improving mills is the cost of equipment. Many mills simply can’t afford to invest in new equipment or changes in mill design.

With this in mind we have been working with ACERES – a consultancy with expertise in coffee milling – to identify the few technological improvements that would have the biggest impact at reducing water contamination from coffee mills. Based on a study of 48 mills, the technologies that have the biggest impact are (1) mechanical de-pulpers that eliminate the need for water and (2) methods to mechanically transport pulp and beans through the milling process. (This study, too, will be shared on this blog very soon).

The take-away from this study is that the first and most important investment is to reduce the amount of water that mills use. After reducing water use, focus on treating wastewater. Some mills invest in water treatment systems before reducing the amount of water they use, which becomes unnecessarily costly and still extracts excessive amounts of water from streams.

The recommendation to the specialty coffee industry is to help cooperatives and other coffee millers to access financing to make the necessary upgrades to their mills. Consider working with Root Capital, UTZ, Rainforest, to maximize your impact.

  1. Know the source

A couple years ago, Equal Exchange shared with us their 8 Rivers initiative, where they source coffee from the buffer zones of eight UNESCO biosphere reserves around the world. What inspired us about this initiative was the idea of a coffee roaster committing to a landscape and the people that live there, and explicitly investing in building local capacity to understand and manage their own natural resources.

We have applied the same approach in Blue Harvest with support from Keurig. Our project sites are coffeelands in Central America that are the water sources for towns and cities. We support farmers to improve their agricultural practices, protect water sources, and build local capacity to manage water resources for the long term.

Our recommendation is for coffee companies to make a long term commitment to critical watershed for sourcing coffee, and support local people to manage their water resources. It’s good for people, good for the environment, and can be marketed in a way that builds consumers’ awareness about water.

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