March 2021

We are working to improve sustainability in 9 key areas. The first of these is water: maximising the use of our most precious natural resource by continuously improving efficiency.

Why this is a priority?

While growing more cotton with every drop of available water has been an industry focus for decades – producing a bale of irrigated cotton took 48% less water in 2019 compared to 1992 – there are two very important reasons to continue to improve.

For customers and other stakeholders around the world, the use of water in agriculture is increasingly important. For the Australian cotton industry, it is often the main stakeholder concern.

For growers, water is an expensive input, so improving its efficiency of use can reduce direct costs. In addition, more precise application of water can prevent soil porosity and compaction problems. This can increase water holding capacity, soil microbial activity, root penetration at depth, water availability, and ultimately yield and fibre quality.

What is our ultimate goal?

While many stakeholders outside the industry would just like to see less water used each year, this is hard to achieve in practice with the huge seasonal variation in Australia’s river inflows. Instead, the industry aims to deliver a continuous increase in the efficiency of water used for cotton irrigation, within sustainable river system and plant physiology limits. This industry goal mirrors the relevant UN Sustainable Development Goal.

Sustainable withdrawals are driven by Commonwealth and State governments, which set clear limits on the amount of water that can be taken from rivers for towns, industries and farmers. Within this regulatory framework that aims to deliver sustainable water use within healthy river systems, the cotton industry’s role is to increase the efficient use of the water allocated to growers each year.

What is our draft target?

To increase irrigated cotton water use efficiency by 12.5% every five years.



2019 Baseline

2024 Draft Target

2029 Draft Target

GPWUI takes into account all water available to the crop: irrigation water + rainfall + soil moisture change. It is normally written as bales/ML, but because we want to show less water being used, we have inverted it to ML/bale for the target indicator. For more data and methodology, click here.











This is a bold target, mainly because of the physiological limits of the cotton plant. This is shown in Figure 1. When talking to customers and other stakeholders, it will be important to highlight how much of a stretch this target is.

But industry scientists think it is achievable. This is partly because the industry has a long-term record of all growers improving over time, as seen in Figure 2. And it is partly because the industry continues to invest heavily in improving water use efficiency.

The industry supports improved government monitoring and compliance of water use. For further transparency, in future the industry plans to provide links to publicly available government data on water use and compliance breaches.

What do growers need to do to achieve the target?

The target requires continued adoption of practices to reduce losses in storage and transmission, and to improve precision in application.

The myBMP Water Management module has Level 2 best practice standards (what you should do) and Level 3 innovative practices (what you could do).

Current CottonInfo priorities for growers are:

  • Make growers aware of the current industry benchmark (GPWUI)
  • Have growers from all regions participate in the irrigation benchmarking project for continuous improvement
  • Support the adoption of new products to reduce losses and improve precision in application
  • Support the adoption of new practices for smarter irrigation.

Figure 1: The targets are a real stretch, but achievable. The 2024 and 2029 targets are in line with the industry’s long-term trend in reducing the amount of water it takes to grow each bale , but getting very close to the theoretical maximum performance for megalitres per bale. This maximum performance is a best case scenario, and averaging this on every cotton farm will be a major task.

Figure 1: The targets are a real stretch, but achievable.

Figure 2: All growers are improving over time. GPWUI plotted by 25th to 75th percentile (boxes) and minimum and maximum (whiskers) per farm show the average grower (blue line) from 2018 achieved above the 99th percentile in the 1990s. The most inefficient user of water in 2018 would have been in the top 25th percentile in the 1990s.

Figure 2: All growers are improving over time.















Data source: NSWDPI, Benchmarking water productivity of Australian irrigated cotton project, 2019.

Sustainability: managing what matters

The PLANET. PEOPLE. PADDOCK. sustainability framework is focused on the topics most important to the industry and its stakeholders. Through a process involving a technical review, industry input and external stakeholder consultations nine topics have been identified across our environmental (PLANET), social (PEOPLE) and economic (PADDOCK) impacts.

The industry is working to set targets for these nine topics. In achieving these sustainability targets, the industry aims to run profitable and efficient businesses while creating environmental, economic and social value.

This blog is part of a year long program from CottonInfo, with the themes aligned with the 2021 CottonInfo cotton calendar and the cotton industry’s PLANET. PEOPLE. PADDOCK sustainability framework.