Growing coffee has a huge impact on water resources. It needs lots and stable amounts of water to grow and to rinse the beans. Especially in Colombia, where a large coffee crisis was caused by climate change and crop disease destroying almost 80% of the plantations, something had to be done. The Manos al Agua programme offers an approach that impacts the whole coffee chain and environment: farmers, families, schools, coffee companies and governments.
Manos al Agua is a public private partnership uniting leading organisations in the coffee sector. Public partners include the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Colombian Government. Private partners are the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), Nestlé and Nespresso. Scientific partners are Wageningen University and Research Centre and Cenicafé. In 2013 they started a pilot that will last 5 years. Their aim is to promote the sustainability of the Colombian coffee sector and the welfare of rural communities throughout the country. Besides influencing policy development, this innovative program has positive impact on rural development by focusing on poverty reduction, improving farming systems, better water use, forest management and above all improved water use.
One of the questions they seek answers to is how to handle longer periods of drought, that alternate with heavy rainy seasons. During wet periods landslides and high humidity endanger the crops. And when it’s very dry, the grains don’t grow properly and the flowers wither and die. Because coffee is very sensitive to fluctuations in water supply, the crops and production suffer with tremendous impact on the environment and the income of the growers. “Integrated water management is the solution”, explained farmer Lina Echeverri, sustainability liaison for Manos al Agua in Europe. “This is not only about using different techniques to find water resourcements and reduce contamination, it involves a large training program that helps the whole community to learn and participate. Instead of integrated solutions I therefore rather speak of intelligent water management. It’s about changing perspectives and the way of thinking.”
Cascading training program
The training programme is set up on 25 river locations, involving in totally 48,000 people from coffee families. Per municipality there is a specialised team of 5 experts. Echeverri: “The knowledge transfer which trickles down from the top, starting atwith scientists from Wageningen University and Cenicafé, who pass their knowledge to the river service groups, who are responsible for training the farmers, who – in turn – involve their partners and children. Sometimes the solutions seem very simple. Instead of leaving the water tap open to rinse the coffee beans four times, they collect water in a basin and use the same amount of water four times. This already cuts the water consumption by half. It’s only one example of the water solutions that have been implemented so far. There are also solutions that impact the eco-system, such as bio-engineering and reforestation to prevent landslides in case of heavy rain.”
Towards a water learning network
The core of Manos al Agua is about gathering data on the relationship between water, climate and coffee. Echeverri: “Our 25 monitoring locations provide prove to actually understand this connection. No longer we base our approach on assumptions, how good they may be, but on actual fact. This puts a whole new perspective on policy making as well. And then action comes into focus. By developing a water learning network, at an academic level. So that our findings can flow into knowledge and collaboration. Just like water.”