Water in the Coffeelands: How Coffee Can Make Water Cleaner and Landscapes Greener

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By Meredith Taylor

Water management is a difficult issue to address in coffee-growing regions because many of the impacts tied to water pollution and shortages are often downstream from their causes—both literally and temporally. While the issues around water as it relates to coffee are complex, they fall into two basic, overlapping categories: having enough water for drinking, sanitation and processing, and the disposal of household and processing wastewater. The Water in the Coffeelands panel at April’s SCAA Expo addressed both of these categories while highlighting the need for a landscape-level approach and collective action.

Panelist Leonardo Sanchez, from ACERES, focused on the need to develop new and better technology to treat processing wastewater coming from wet mills—facilities that are a large potential source for water pollution, but who also have enough scale and volume to test out new treatment options that could be used at smaller on-farm processing operations.

Panelist Michelle Deugd from Rainforest Alliance highlighted the importance of getting down to water use at the farm level, both for agriculture as well as other household needs. She made a great analogy about using water for irrigation the same way growers use fertilizers— the proper amount needed should be calculated and applied because well-watered trees can increase productivity and help with pest and disease resistance.

Tracy Ging of Volcafe Specialty talked about her experience with water management issues during her time at S&D Coffee. According to Tracy, S&D went from not including water as an investment area, to realizing it was an issue for many growers, to realizing it was an issue in many coffee-growing communities. Regardless of the causes of water shortages or contamination in any given community, solving the problem at any one farm or group of farms didn’t solve the water issues for the community because water “thinks” and “acts” on a watershed scale—not an individual farm scale.

Following up on Tracy’s point about considering water management a landscape-level issue requiring a landscape-scale response, panelist Herman Rosa, the former Minister of the Environment for El Salvador, reflected on the need to address water issues at a national level. According to Herman, good soil management, especially the use of groundcover, was one of the most important steps individual growers could take that would contribute to improvements on a large scale.

During their individual presentations and well as during the long Q&A period, the panelists touched on a few recurring themes:

  1. The need to take a landscape-level approach to solving water issues
  2. The need for collaboration among actors in that landscape, including governments
  3. The importance of soil management as an avenue to address water issues

Although water is not a new issue in coffee, and certainly not a new topic of discussion at SCAA, this April’s panel framed the scope of the issue in a new way, leading to a thoughtful discussion about how landscape-level thinking and collective action might lead to better solutions.

Meredith Taylor has worked in specialty coffee for 8 years with the majority of that time spent at Peregrine Espresso in D.C. She has an educational background in environmental policy and enjoys drawing on this experience for her work on the SCAA Sustainability Council and her role as Sustainability Manager at Counter Culture Coffee.