According to 2019 reports of the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, 2.2 billion people across the globe do not have access to safe drinking water. A United Nations (UN) report in 2019 also stated that 2.2 billion people live in countries where water is scarce.
One in three people on every continent faces a water scarcity problem. The World Wildlife Fund warns that the rate at which our rivers, lakes, and aquifers are being polluted or drying up, two-thirds of the global population will face water shortage by 2025.
The global water crisis has severe effects on our ecosystem as well, apart from the tremendous hazards it poses for human health.
Hemp Fabric as a Solution
Fabric fashioned from hemp fiber provides one practical solution to the water crisis the world is facing today. To understand this tall claim, we need to understand the hemp plant first.
The Hemp Plant
Hemp, or industrial hemp as it is also called, is one of the fastest-growing plants that have been human use since the Neolithic age. Historical evidence suggests that it is one of the earliest plants that human beings had cultivated and used.
Hemp is actually a weed that needs little care to be grown. It grows fast and prolifically. It needs no herbicides as its dense growth leaves little room for other unwanted plants to grow in the hemp field. Being naturally insect resistant, it needs no pesticides either.
However, it is also an amazingly versatile plant. Every part of the plant is usable and it yields an entire range of products. From highly nutritious edible seeds to wearable fabric, from pain-relieving oil to bioplastic, from biofuel to biodegradable building material – you name it and you can that from this plant.
Hemp was very much in human use through centuries till the early 20th century. It was around the 1930s that nylon, plastic, and other lucrative synthetic products started pervading our societies, Hemp started taking a back seat since then.
However, there is more to hemp virtually disappearing from the human map for nearly a century. Hemp belongs to the same plant species, Cannabis Sativa L, as the narcotic cannabis. Hemp does not have the psychoactive properties of the drug cannabis, though, as the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is limited to 0.3% or less in hemp.
THC is the chemical compound with psychotropic properties and its presence in narcotic cannabis is much higher: 7.5 to 10% or higher. This crucial difference got overlooked and hemp farming was banned in many countries of the world. Only recently are countries taking corrective measures to decriminalize nature’s wonder plant.
The bast fibers of the hemp plant yield hemp fabric. When meant for fiber use, hemp seeds are sown close together so that the plant growth is dense. That results in the plants growing tall with little or no branching.
These plants get harvested just before the seeds start appearing, which is usually within 70-90 days of sowing the seeds. The stalks then go through the stages of retting, breaking, scutching, hackling, roving, and spinning to produce the yarn with which hemp fabric gets woven.
Hemp fabric is probably one of the earliest fabrics used by human beings. According to archeologists, remnants of hemp clothing found in Iraq date back to 8000 BCE. That remains the oldest piece of hemp cloth found so far.
The longer and finer fibers known as line fibers are spun to make yarns for fine clothing. The shorter fibers known as tow are used for producing ropes, twines, sackcloth, and so on. Hemp fabric meant for apparel is like linen. It grows softer with every wash and is exceptionally breathable.
Hemp fabric is also much more durable than cotton. One of its special characteristics is that it can completely block the cancer-causing ultra-violet (UV) rays of the sun. The real value of hemp clothing, however, is in its eco-friendliness.
Hemp Fabric: A Response to Water Crisis
Nearly 36% of the world’s textile is produced from cotton yarns. Cotton, however, has fairly devastating effects on the natural resources of water on our planet. Studies reflect that the water footprint of hemp cultivation is about one-third of the water footprint of cotton.
Hemp Fabric vs. Cotton Fabric
For one kilogram of cotton, 10,000 liters of water needs to be used. For one kilogram of hemp fibers, the water requirement is only 2,791 liters. Cotton is the largest water user among all agricultural products. It takes about 2,700 liters of water to produce enough cotton for a single t-shirt.
However, there are other ways in which hemp fabric offers a practical solution to the global water crisis. Cotton usually grows in countries and areas already facing a water crisis. Experts believe that this crisis could well be the result of cotton cultivation across generations.
Hemp, on the other hand, is usually grown in places with no water crisis. From that perspective also, growing hemp has a less adverse impact on the water bodies of the world. But hemp has still more to offer to address the global water crisis.
A quarter (25%) of all the pesticides used globally go into cotton farming and so do 7% of fertilizers. Soil washed off from cotton fields carry the remnants of these pesticides and contaminate our rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers.
This impact on the natural water bodies of the world is known as the grey water footprint in agricultural and industrial language. Hemp needs neither pesticides nor fertilizers. There is zero grey water footprint of hemp.
Another contributor to the water crisis is less rainfall, which has a direct relationship with the number of trees we have. Indiscriminate deforestation in the name of development is the main culprit there. However, cotton has a role to play as well.
Cotton farming has devastating effects on the soil. Years of cotton production have completely degraded and depleted the soil in many areas. Hemp, on the other hand, is the soil’s darling. It absorbs harmful minerals from the soil and gives back nutrients.
Farmers have been using hemp as a rotation crop for years because of its soil preserving qualities. If we want fewer droughts, we need more rainfall. For that, we need more trees, and trees cannot grow on depleted soil. There also, hemp outperforms cotton.
Hemp Fabric vs. Synthetic Fabrics
Substituting cotton with synthetic fabrics is not really an answer. Apart from all the other environmental costs of synthetic fabrics that are based on non-renewable fossil fuels, there is a considerable impact on our water bodies also.
A June 2016 report in The Guardian reflected that an alarming quantity of tiny remnants from synthetic fabrics make their way from washing machines and manual washing into the gastrointestinal tracts of aquatic animals. To do that, they need to first enter our water bodies and contaminate them.
So, synthetic fabrics are certainly not an answer to the global water crisis, even if we ignore all the other ecological problems they cause. Among natural fibers, hemp is a clear winner when it comes to addressing the global water crisis.
We Should Not Forget
Less rainfall and more droughts are effects of global warming and climate change. Hemp has incredible carbon sequestering ability. One hectare of hemp can absorb 22 tons of carbon dioxide. The more hemp we grow the less carbon dioxide there will be in the atmosphere. That, too, has direct links with the world’s water crisis.
Written By: Vishal Vivek