Water & Coffee: How much water does it take to produce coffee?

Coffee is a thirsty crop; it takes roughly 140 litres of water to produce one cup of coffee. The vast majority of this water is rainfall that producers rely on to naturally irrigate their farms, but it also includes processing, transportation and brewing by the consumer. Water is an important part of every step of the coffee’s journey to its final destination of your coffee cup, yet sadly, water scarcity is becoming a huge threat in coffee producing countries. Let’s take a closer look at how our choice of coffee can have a huge impact on water usage.

We talk a lot about shade-grown and agroforestry coffee here at Yallah, but these growing methods can have a huge direct effect on the amount of water available for the growing coffee trees.

It’s no secret that rainforests produce and trap moisture, which turns to cloud cover that in turn produces rain. Coffee farms that have a protective tree cover - whether they are purely there for shade or purposefully planted as other cash crops - mimic a rainforest’s natural cycle of producing rain and provide water security for the coffee farmers who choose this way of growing. Clearing land for coffee production can lead to water shortages which will ultimately affect not only the coffee itself, but nearby communities. In fact, producer Eduardo Feirrera saw this in action back on his family’s farm in Brazil. Coffee here is often grown under full sun so that it grows as quickly as possible, but Eduardo saw the toll this took on the farm. In 2016 there was a huge drought, which inspired him to study regenerative agriculture practices. A huge focus of this was water retention in the soil and by planting or nurturing a natural forest canopy over the coffee trees, the ground is protected by the sun and the coffee can rely less on adequate rainfall by tapping into reserves underground. In general, there needs to be awareness about circular water systems by local governments in growing regions as it’s difficult for individual growers to gain the skills or knowledge required to treat water adequately. But there are plenty of initiatives out there aiming to tackle this, and many partners in our supply chain are putting steps in place to increase awareness and invest in water treatment and conservation.

Once we get past the growing phase, there is usually heavy reliance on water for many processes, particularly at the milling stage. The ‘wet’ mill, so called as this is where coffee cherries come to be washed and depulped, is often situated by a local river or water source. The sticky, sugary fruit residue has to be washed entirely off the bean with fresh, clean water in order to not affect the flavour of the coffee, but the result is wastewater that is saturated with nutrients and devoid of oxygen, and therefore a danger to wildlife if released back into the water stream. Producers and washing stations have different ways of treating this wastewater. Jonny, founder of Ugandan coffee exporter Agri-Evolve, has seen this in action with great success. Agri-Evolve has spent $30,000 investing in their water treatment facilities at the wet mills there. And he talks us through their process.

Jonny, founder of Ugandan coffee exporter Agri-Evolve, has seen this in action with great success. Agri-Evolve has spent $30,000 investing in their water treatment facilities at the wet mills there. And he talks us through their process.

‘Firstly, we recycle as much water as we can to reduce waste.’ Jonny explains. ‘However, when it goes to waste, it first goes through filters to ensure there is as little solid matter as possible (pulp, etc). Then we have a reed bed using phragmites [a species of reed]. These are very vigorous reeds that can handle water with a very low pH, and they suck water very quickly from the ground. They are used to being in swamps or shallow lakes and are happy to be submerged in water. These reeds are planted on top of a bed of rocks, creating space for the water to filter through the rock, some of which are alkaline rocks i.e limestone which helps increase the pH levels.’

The key here is restoring the pH levels; coffee fruit is naturally acidic so it needs to be brought up to a normal range before being reintroduced back into nature. They also add lime powder to help with this. Once filtered by the reed beds, the water is passed through underground pipes to two storage lagoons nearby, one feeding into the other. This second lagoon now is storing clean water that can be used to grow other crops or support livestock.

So, if you want to be conscious of your coffee’s water usage next time you grab a cup of the good stuff, here are the top three things you can do to make an impact:

1. Buy shade-grown or agroforestry coffee that encourages rainfall and water retention. 

2. Purchase coffees from mills where water usage is circular through treatment and filtration. Like our Trust coffee, Midnight Flyer.

3. Buy natural or honey processed coffees where there is far less water used in the post-harvest process.