Which Industries Use The Most Water

Globally, the three main sectors that make up total fresh water withdrawals are – agriculture, industry, and the municipal sector.

Different countries can withdraw water in different shares for different sectors.

In addition, developed and high income countries tend to use more water for energy generation and industry, whilst developing and lower income countries tend to use more water for agriculture.

In this guide we look at how much water the different sectors and industries use worldwide, and also in specific countries.

(*Note – we refer to the sectors as agriculture, industry and municipal, whilst we refer to industries as the individual industries within the overall sector.)


Summary – Which Industries Use The Most Water

The global average for fresh water withdrawals by sector is – agriculture (and irrigation) at 70%, industry at 19%, and municipal (household and public services) at 11%. Australia is just one example of a country with a water withdrawal share that mirrors this % share almost exactly.

Water shares across the sectors can change though in different individual countries, as well as in developed vs developing countries, and high vs low income countries

Low income countries tend to use more water for agriculture according to ourworldindata.org

There is a difference between direct and indirect water usage across all sectors and industries

In terms of direct water usage, the agriculture (via irrigation) and power-generation (via thermoelectricity) industries are responsible for 90 percent of direct water withdrawals.

We see this in the 2010 United States stats – thermo electricity, irrigation and public supply withdrew the most fresh water in terms of volume. Industrial, aquaculture, domestic, mining and livestock round out the other major users

According to News.Thomasnet.com, electrical power production uses more water than any other single industrial process.

But, a majority of water usage (about 60 percent) is indirect.

About 96 percent of industry sectors use more water indirectly than directly in their supply chains.

Water usage differs by industry, but public supply, industrial (manufacturing and business), aquaculture, mining and livestock are some of the other big users in the US (as of 2010 figures)

It’s worth noting though in industries such as agriculture, apart from total volume, water use can be broken down into different measurables and indicators, such as water used per dollar of economic value produced, per calorie produced, per gram of protein/fat/nutrient produced, and so on

For almost everything we do or consume in society, there are both direct and indirect water footprints.

For example, water is directly used to grow crops by food producers/farmers, but consumers also incur an indirect water footprint for that food when they eat it or throw it out or waste it after buying it.

A car is another example of a product that has water use at most stages throughout it’s lifecycle – used in manufacture, in refining fuel, in washing a car, and so on.


A few other notes:

There’s a difference between water withdrawn and water consumed

There’s a difference between renewable fresh water resources (such as rainfed water), and non renewable fresh water resources

It makes a difference if water is treated, or treated and re-used/recycled after use

… ultimately, water use in different industries can be more or less sustainable depending on the type of fresh water used, where it comes from, and what happens to the fresh water after it’s used


Water Withdrawals By Agriculture, Industry, & Municipal Sectors

There are three main sectors responsible for the withdrawal of fresh water resources – agriculture, for industry, and municipal.

Read more about how these sectors withdraw fresh water resources globally and in individual countries in this guide.


What Is Industrial Water Use?

Agriculture is water use for farming, agricultural land and crops, with irrigation playing a major role.

And, municipal is water use for domestic, household purposes or public services.

Industrial water use is water used for industrial applications.

Some industrial water use descriptions are:

Industrial withdrawals provide water for such purposes as fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product; incorporating water into a product; or for sanitation needs within the manufacturing facility.

Water for industrial use may be delivered from a public supplier or be self supplied.

– water.usgs.gov


Manufacturing and other industries use water during the production process for either creating their products, or cooling equipment used in creating their products.

… industrial water is used for fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product.

Water is also used by smelting facilities, petroleum refineries, and industries producing chemical products, food, and paper products.

Large amounts of water are used mostly to produce food, paper, and chemicals.

– cdc.gov


[Water used in industrial applications is used for] … dilution, steam generation, washing, and cooling of manufacturing equipment. Industrial water is also used as cooling water for energy generation in fossil fuel and nuclear power plants (hydropower generation is not included in this category), or as wastewater from certain industrial processes

– ourworldindata.org


In manufacturing processes, water is used to generate electric power, to make steam for processing and cleaning, to cool or control process temperature, to rinse, to dilute food, and to formulate products containing water (such as in pharmaceuticals and beverages).

How much water is required to produce a product varies, depending on how early in the process the meter starts to measure

[Water usage numbers are higher if they] include the water required to grow the crops or access the raw materials [for products]

– fmanet.org


Which Industries Use The Most Water Generally?

The industries that produce metals, wood and paper products, chemicals, gasoline and oils, and … utensils … are major users of water.

Some industries that use large amounts of water produce … commodities [such] as food, paper, chemicals, refined petroleum, or primary metals.

– water.usgs.gov


Which Industries Use The Most Water In The United States?

According to News.Thomasnet.com:

A 2010 report … broke down water usage by industry sector, taking into consideration both direct water usage — which means bringing water into a manufacturing facility for your industrial process — and indirect water usage — when a manufacturing facility is buying items from the supply chain that were manufactured by someone else using water, then incorporating those materials into the finished product.

In terms of direct water usage, the agriculture and power-generation industries are responsible for 90 percent of direct water withdrawals.

Yet a majority of water usage (about 60 percent) is indirect: about 96 percent of industry sectors use more water indirectly than directly in their supply chains.

[Some comments on individual industries are as follows …]

Meat Farming – meat farming … shows up lower on the list in terms of water use per dollar of economic output than fruit, grain and vegetable farming. … [But] “29 percent of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector in the world is related to the production of animal products.”

One-third of that water is used to raise beef cattle.

Fruit & Vegetable Farming – … wheat, corn, rice, cotton and sugarcane lead the pack in water usage. (A single 5 lb. bag of refined white sugar uses about 88 gallons of water, most of it from the farming of sugar cane and sugar beets.)

Power Generation – Water is used at almost every stage of energy production, including pumping crude oil, removing pollutants from power plant exhaust, generating steam to run turbines, washing away residue after fossil fuels are burned and keeping power plants cool.

It takes … 95 liters of water to produce one kilowatt-hour of electricity. Within the energy industry, the most water-hungry process is the thermoelectric-power industry.

Overall, electrical power production uses more water than any other single industrial process …

Natural Gas vs Coal vs Biofuel Energy – … natural gas yields the most energy per unit volume of water consumed.

Only about 10 gallons of water are required to extract enough natural gas to generate 1,000 kWh of electricity.

By comparison, a coal-fired power plant delivering the same amount of energy would use about 140 gallons of water. … some biodiesel isn’t quite so green in the context of water consumption. More than 180,000 liters of water are required to produce enough soybean-based biodiesel to provide a home with a month’s worth of energy.

This is because large amounts of water are required for irrigation of the soil in which the soybeans grow, then more water to turn the soybeans into biofuel.

Textiles & Garments – The textile industry is one of the biggest creators of wastewater worldwide. … it takes 2,900 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans.

Most of this water is used in what’s known as “wet processing” as well as dyeing of fabric.

Beverage Industry -produces sodas, beers, juices and other drinks. … production and bottling processes [don’t use as much water as] the plants: the beverage industry requires farmed products such as sugar, barley, coffee, chocolate, lemons, vanilla and other plant-derived ingredients.

All in all, it takes between 180 and 328 gallons of water to produce a 2-liter bottle of soda, 20 gallons of water to make a pint of beer and nearly 37 gallons of water to produce the ingredients to make a single cup of coffee …

Automotive Manufacturing – it takes about 39,000 gallons of water to produce the average domestic car, including the tires.

Major water uses in the automotive manufacturing industry include surface treatment and coating, paint spray booths, washing/rinsing/hosing, cooling, air conditioning systems and boilers.

Industries In General – Many industrial processes use a staggering amount of water from start to finish. It takes about 270 gallons of water to produce $1 worth of sugar; 200 gallons of water to make $1 worth of pet food; and 140 gallons of water to make $1 worth of milk.

– news.thomasnet.com, and pubs.acs.org


In 2010, the US:

Water Withdrawn (Total) – 306,000 Mgal/d of freshwater total

Water Withdrawn From Surface Water (River, Lakes, etc) – 230,000 Mgal/d (million gallons a day)

Water Withdrawn From Ground Water – 76,000 Mgal/d 

That total water withdrawn was distributed as follows…

Thermoelectric – 117,000 Mgal/d

Irrigation – 115,000 Mgal/d

Public Supply – 42,000 Mgal/d

Industrial – 15,000 Mgal/d

Aquaculture – 9,420 Mgal/d

Domestic – 3,600 Mgal/d

Mining – 2,250 Mgal/d

Livestock – 2,000 Mgal/d

(Note that a million gallons of water is approximately 20,000 baths, or a pool the size of 267 feet long (almost as long as a football field), 50 feet wide, and 10 feet deep)

You can read a breakdown of what each of these sectors include here (water.usgs.gov) 

Descriptions/breakdowns of the above sectors and industries are also available at that same resource.


According to 2010 US Water Withdrawals, water goes to:

Thermoelectric Power – 45%

Irrigation – 32%

Public Supply – 12%

Self Supplied Industrial – 5%

Aquaculture – 3%

Mining – 2%

Self Supplied Domestic – 1%

*Livestock uses less than 1% of of water withdrawals

– epa.gov


…In 2005, including both fresh and saline water …

Most (80%) of these withdrawals go to thermoelectric power plants (for cooling) and agriculture (for watering crops).

Another 11 percent (about 44 billion gallons of water) go to municipal supply and ultimately treatment systems each day (by the way, moving and treating that much water requires massive amounts of energy).

– gracelinks.org


Read more about how water is used in households in this guide.


Which Industries Use The Most Water In Europe?

Urban (households and industry connected to the public water supply system), industry, agriculture and energy (cooling in power plants) abstract the most water

On average, 44% of total water abstraction in Europe is used for agriculture, 40 % for industry and energy production (cooling in power plants), and 15 % for public water supply.

The main water consuming sectors are irrigation, urban, and the manufacturing industry

Southern European countries use the largest percentages of abstracted water for agriculture.

This generally accounts for more than two-thirds of total abstraction.

Irrigation is the most significant use of water in the agriculture sector in these countries.

Central European and the Nordic countries use the largest percentages of abstracted water for cooling in energy production, industrial production and public water supply.

– eea.europa.eu


Which Industries Use The Most Water In Australia?

During 2015-16, an estimated 76,544 gigalitres (GL) of water was extracted from the environment to support the Australian economy

A total of 60,702 gigalitres of the total 76,544 gigalitres extracted from the environment was used in-stream (for example hydro-electricity generation) and is a non-consumptive use of water. ‘In stream water’ means the water stays in the source, like a lake or river, and isn’t technically extracted.

The remainder of self-extracted water that is not for distribution, is used directly by the industry extracting it (5,226 gigalitres), mainly for Agriculture.

5226GL is used directly by the industry who extracted it, whilst 10,615GL is extracted to be used by other industries

Total consumptive use of water in 2015-16 was 16,132 gigalitres. 9,604 gigalitres were consumed by the Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing industry; 2,014 gigalitres were consumed by the Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Services industry; a further 2,615 gigalitres by all other industries; and 1,899 gigalitres by households. This total of 16,132 gigalitres was a decrease of just over 7% from 2014-15, primarily driven by reduced water consumption by Agriculture in New South Wales and Victoria.

290 GL is recycled and re-used within the economy

65,238GL is discharged back into the environment (of the 76,544GL original water extracted)

You can find a good infographic of this water extraction, usage, and discharge here (abs.gov.au) 

– abs.gov.au


Possible Solutions To Save Water In Different Industries

Just a few of the options to save water in different industries might include …


Fruit and Vegetable Farming – Better technology and irrigation management. … Many farms are investing in technologies for water management.

These hardware- and software-based solutions use remote sensing data and satellite images to measure factors such as evaporation and yield, identifying areas where water is being used productively and areas where it’s being wasted.

Power Generation – Using salt water for cooling equipment.

Use less water intensive forms of power generation.

Textiles & Garments – … cost-cutting demands and a tightening of environmental regulations are forcing textile and garment companies to evaluate how they use water (particularly if they operate in areas where water is scarce).

Automotive Manufacturing – One of the most water-conscious automakers is PSA Peugeot Citroën.

While the company uses about 20 million cubic meters of water each year, it strives to clean and return all of it to the environment, purifying the water it uses at all stages of production, including cooling welding machinery, washing sheet steel, painting and water tightness testing.

– news.thomasnet.com


Formal water strategies are becoming more common [especially in water intensive industries, and even non water intensive industries]

… formal reports about water usage and conservation practices [are more common now too]

Companies are realizing that as water becomes scarcer in places they manufacture, wasteful production methods present a danger to operations, particularly if local governments turn off the tap or put huge surcharges on water use.

It’s in the businesses’ best interests to put some water conversation programs into place now and wean themselves off wasteful processes in favor of more water-conserving production methods.

… companies are using water metering and other technology solutions, such as water accounting, water-footprinting tools (helping facilities get a grip on how much water they are using for which processes) and product lifecycle assessment (LCA) software that helps them outline the environmental impact of their products and processes.

In 2011, the Verdantix study found that most firms perceive water waste as a short-term risk: most of their efforts were focused on cost savings and regulatory compliance strategies.

A long-term view, called “water stewardship,” was far less common.

Water stewardship involves companies working beyond compliance requirements toward permanent sustainability.

– news.thomasnet.com


What Are The Trends For Global Water Use?

Global freshwater use has increased nearly six fold since 1900 … and, freshwater withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years.

Read more about trends for fresh water use over the last few decades in this guide.



1. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2018) – “Water Access, Resources & Sanitation”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/water-access-resources-sanitation’ [Online Resource]

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drinking_water_supply_and_sanitation_in_the_United_States

3. http://www.gracelinks.org/210/how-the-united-states-uses-water

4. https://water.usgs.gov/edu/wateruse-diagrams.html

5. https://www.epa.gov/watersense/how-we-use-water

6. https://water.usgs.gov/watuse/wuin.html

7. https://water.usgs.gov/watuse/

8. http://www.worldometers.info/water/

9 .https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/other/industrial/index.html

10. https://water.usgs.gov/edu/saline.html

11. https://water.usgs.gov/watuse/wuin.html

12. https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/water/water-resources/water-use-by-sectors

13. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/4610.0

14. http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/Latestproducts/4610.0Main%20Features32015-16?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=4610.0&issue=2015-16&num=&view=

15. https://news.thomasnet.com/imt/2012/04/10/down-the-drain-industry-water-use

16. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es903147k?tokenDomain=presspac&tokenAccess=presspac&forwardService=showFullText&journalCode=esthag

17. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/water-supplies-in-australia-nationally-by-state-a-summary-stats-trends/

18. https://www.fmanet.org/blog/2012/05/24/water-reuse-recycling-conservation-manufacturing

Leave a Comment