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

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The UN, which last year convened the first major conference on water in over 45 years, estimates that 2 billion people do not have safe drinking water, and up to 3 billion people experience water shortages for at least one month each year.

The 350 corporations analyzed, including Carrefour and Avril Group, 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.

“When big corporations pollute or consume huge amounts of water, communities pay the price in empty wells, more costly water bills, and contaminated and undrinkable water sources. Less water means more hunger, more disease and more people forced to leave their homes,” said Oxfam France Executive Director Cécile Duflot.

“We clearly can’t rely on corporations’ goodwill to change their practices —governments must force them to clean up their act, and protect shared public goods over thirst for profit,” said Duflot.

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.

The fast-growing bottled water industry is an example of how corporate giants commodify and exploit water, intensifying inequality, pollution and harm. According to the UN, the multi-billion-dollar bottled water industry is undermining progress toward the key Sustainable Development Goal (SDG6) of providing universal access to safe drinking water.

For two months starting in May 2023, French authorities imposed water use restrictions on thousands of people living in the drought-hit department of Puy-de-Dôme, including the commune of Volvic. The restrictions did not apply to Société des Eaux de Volvic, a subsidiary of French multinational Danone, who during this time continued to extract groundwater to supply its Volvic bottling plant. Danone raked in €881 million in profits in 2023 and paid out €1,238 million to its shareholders.

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.

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.

The United Nations 2023 Water Conference was the first UN conference on water in 46 years.

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.

For two months starting in May 2023, French authorities imposed water use restrictions on thousands of people living in the drought-hit department of Puy-de-Dôme, including the commune of Volvic. Société des Eaux de Volvic, owned by Danone, is authorized to pump up to 2.514 billion litres of water each year.

In 2023, a United Nations University study of 109 countries concluded that growth of the bottled water industry is hindering efforts to provide reliable drinking water for all. SDG6 seeks to ensure access to safe water and sanitation for all.

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

Contact information

Annie Thériault in Peru | annie.theriault@oxfam.org | +51 936 307 990
Marika Bekier in France | mbekier@oxfamfrance.org | +33 6 24 34 99 31

For updates, please follow @NewsfromOxfam and @Oxfam


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