There are several ideas that have stuck with me through the last couple years. One of them was presented to me by a dinosaur hand puppet with lipstick and a purple hat. I was watching an early 90’s training video on the water cycle and this dinosaur was explaining water in prehistoric times and said, “The water we have now is the water we had thousands of years ago and will be the only water we ever have.” That thought has stuck with me for five years and probably will for the rest of my life—it’s hard to forget what dinosaur hand puppets with lipstick and purple hats say.
As fun as it may have been for some symposium speakers to have hand puppets, I have no doubt that I will remember the words of Paul Hicks, Keith Flury, and Dr. Borem. Each spoke on a different aspect of coffee and water in a symposium segment titled, “Water: The Invisible Driver of Coffee.” Three main points stuck out to me, one from each speaker. I’d like to address the first one in this post.
Paul Hicks (coordinator of water resources for the Catholic Relief Services) stated a scary, but increasingly apparent fact, that the future water crisis is the number one global risk for economic development in developing nations. That sounds pretty serious, but what does it really mean? Why does clean water contribute to economic prosperity? Obviously, sickness and death from tainted water make economic success impossible, but there’s more to it and it comes down to freshman economics. The ability to specialize is what drives a successful economy.
What does that mean? I’m an engineer. The only way for me to become a well-trained and knowledgeable engineer is to devote myself to my discipline, which costs time. The only real resource we have is time. If the majority of my time is spent on survival tasks, such as gathering food, retrieving water, and constructing shelter, it becomes very difficult for me to master advances calculus and water chemistry. In short, I have lost my ability to specialize in engineering because the entirety of my time is spent in survival mode. The only way for me to overcome survival mode is to create a time surplus, which can be accomplished through increased efficiency. We experience this every day. I turn the faucet on and water comes out. It may take me 3 seconds to fill a glass of water. Compare this to what the time cost would be if our infrastructure was not in place and we wanted to make sure we had clean water to drink. We hike to a water source. We hike back. We filter the water through cloth or sand (removal large particles). We gather firewood (for our fire). We boil the water (killing pathogens). Finally, we have potable water, but at what cost? Sure, financially it may not have expensive. After all, nature provided most of what we needed, but it would probably take us one to two hours on average to accomplish this task. That’s a 1200% increase in time cost—at least. I realize this isn’t the perfect scenario, but the general principle stands. This is why technology and infrastructure that improve efficiency is so valuable.
Back to Paul and the impact of water on coffee economies, he shared a cautionary tale from El Salvador. This country once exported 2.5 million bags of coffee a year, but now exports only 800,000 bags of coffee a year. A portion of this decline is due to different crops being grown instead of coffee, but another significant chunk is due to a shift from sustainable land use to more destruction agriculture practices. Therefore, Paul argued that the very best way to assure proper water management was through correct soil management. Manage soil—manage water.
Of course, the connection between soil and water may not be immediately obvious. In the U.S. civil engineers do everything in their power to reduce soil erosion for several reason, one being water conservation. When it rains, bare soil without vegetated coverage is washed away and eventually finds itself in the river system, which may result in decreased water clarity and sweeps potentially harmful soil bacteria into the river. This scenario can be largely avoided by not clear cutting land and preserving hillside vegetation. The vegetation acts as a natural filters and retains the soil while allowing the rainwater find its way to the river. Hence, Paul stated without a doubt that shade-grown coffee is the most effective water conservation system we can use because it retains soil and controls stormwater runoff.
So what? What does that mean to the non-engineer, consumer, and roaster? Water is a big deal and becoming a bigger one. As conscience buying sweeps the U.S., I hope you find yourself thinking about your coffee and where it comes from. Look into their certifications and research the company you buy your coffee from. We, as coffee lovers, drive the coffee market and if we care about conscience coffee, so will those who bring it to us. Think about your cup and where your money goes.
Paul had a few closing comments and pieces of advice for thinking about water and coffee.
- Focus on soil management at origin
- Rainforest Alliance certified farms outperformed non-certified farms when it came to soil conservation
- Partner with experts—TOMS is doing this now to bring about real change through their coffee venture
- Only 10-15% of mills around the world use technology to reduce water use and contamination from wet-milling coffee
- Water resource management is a long-term commitment, not a short-term solution
Of course, there are several questions that need answering, such as how do we go about changing culture to improve farming practices? What are the tools that decision makers need to adequately assess contamination? And how can we fund improved technology in origin countries? And there are many more, but I believe that together, we can prevent this water crisis before it begins.
Don’t forget those wise words from the dinosaur hand puppet.