The Future is Equal

Global water crisis looms yet only one in four of the biggest food and agriculture corporations say they’re reducing water use and pollution

Only 28 percent of the world’s most influential food and agriculture corporations report they are reducing their water withdrawals and just 23 percent say they are taking action to reduce water pollution. Oxfam’s new analysis of 350 corporations using World Benchmarking Alliance data comes ahead of World Water Day (March 22).

The 350 corporations analyzed together account for more than half of the world’s food and agriculture revenue. 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals are used for agriculture, which is by far the largest water-using sector worldwide. Industrial farming plays a major role in water pollution.

Oxfam’s analysis also found that only 108 of these 350 corporations are disclosing the proportion of withdrawals from water-stressed areas.

The UN estimates that 2 billion people do not have safe drinking water. To add to this gross injustice, the majority of these people will be living in poverty. All this while corporate giants are commodifying and exploiting water for profits. It is time for governments to recognise water as a human right and hold corporations accountable for their actions” said Oxfam Aotearoa Kaiwhakahaere Executive Director Jason Myers.

Water and wealth are inextricably linked. Rich people have better access to safe public drinking water —and money to buy expensive private water— while people living in poverty, who often don’t have access to a government-backed water source, spend significant portions of their income to purchase water. This is true across the Pacific

“In the Pacific, increasingly unstable climate patterns can lead to saltwater infiltrating freshwater sources. As the few groundwater sources become undrinkable, Pacific communities are forced to rely on rainwater, which has also become more unreliable with climate change” explained Carlos Calderon, Oxfam Aotearoa’s Head of Partnerships and Humanitarian.

Rises in global temperatures will further reduce water availability in many water-scarce countries, including across East Africa and the Middle East, because of the increased frequency of droughts, and changes in rainfall patterns and run-off.

Oxfam has seen first-hand how people are facing the daily challenge of accessing safe water sources, spending countless hours queuing or trekking long distances, and suffering the health impacts of using contaminated water. For example in Renk, a transit camp in South Sudan, more than 300 people are now sharing a single water tap, increasing the risk of cholera and other diseases. Oxfam warned last year that up to 90 percent of water boreholes in parts of Somalia, Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia had entirely dried up.

“In conflicts and other humanitarian crises, lack of access to water can lead to tensions and violence. When safe drinking water is scarce due to climate events, water infrastructure destruction or denied access, families get sick or are forced to move. Water becomes a commodity used as an instrument of conflict. Today, almost 27 million people in Africa are at risk due to a vicious circle between climate, violence and access to safe water” said Carlos Calderon.

Oxfam is calling on governments to:

  • Recognize water as a human right and a public good. Profits should not be the priority when it comes to providing water services to people.
  • Hold corporations accountable for abusing and violating human and environmental rights and laws, including water pollution.
  • Invest in water security, subsidized public water provision, sustainable water management and climate-resilient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services. National planning and policy around WASH must commit to women’s leadership, participation, and decision-making at all stages.

Notes to editors

Data analyzed by Oxfam on 350 of the most influential food and agriculture corporations is from the World Benchmarking Alliance. The Nature Benchmark Methodology is available for download.

According to the UN, 2 billion people (26 percent of the population) do not have safe drinking water, and between two and three billion people worldwide experience water shortages fort at least one month per year.

According to the World Bank, agriculture accounts, on average, for 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals globally.

Last month, Oxfam reported that more than 300 people were sharing a single water tap in Renk, South Sudan. Together with partners, Oxfam has provided clean water and sanitation to over 70,000 people in transit camps but urgently needs $7 million to ramp up its operations and provide 400,000 people with life-saving food, clean water, and sanitation. 

Last year, Oxfam warned that up to 90 percent of water boreholes in parts of Somalia, Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia had entirely dried up.

Oxfam water engineers are having to drill deeper, more expensive and harder-to-maintain water boreholes used by some of the poorest communities around the world, more often now only to find dry, depleted or polluted reservoirs.

Download Oxfam’s “Water Dilemmas” report for more information about the impacts of climate change on water.


Contact information

Rachel Schaevitz | | +64 27 959 5555