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 these different sectors.

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 industries within each of these sectors.


(*Note – in this guide, we refer to the main sectors as agriculture, industry and municipal, whilst we refer to industries as the individual industries within these sectors)


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)

Other developed countries might use a far higher % of their water for industrial activity amongst their sectors

Industrial water use is essentially any water used for the creation and manufacturing of a product

When comes to looking at water usage within individual industries, there is a difference between direct and indirect water usage 

In terms of direct water usage, the agriculture industry (mainly via irrigation) and power-generation industry (mainly via thermoelectricity) 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

In terms of types of products that use the most water for their industrial processes, food, metals, paper, chemicals, and gasoline and oils (refined petroleum) industrial processes might use the most water

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

Another example is the indirect water footprint manufacturing facilities incur for the power required to run their equipment

In addition to water use, we might also consider water waste and loss in industry

There might be a range of solutions for using water more sustainably in industry


A few other notes:

There’s a difference between water withdrawn and water consumed – water withdrawn is usually returned to the water source and supply, whereas water consumed is usually removed from it. Australia might be an example of a country that returns majority of it water capacity after it’s withdrawn

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 sustainable, 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

So, not all water use always bad an unsustainable – it depends on costs and benefits of using that water, and how water is managed as a resource 


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 i.e. the creation of products.

Water use for industrial applications might include:

– Water used for fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling (including cooling manufacturing equipment), or transporting a product. It also includes steam generation

– Water incorporated into a product

– Water used within a manufacturing facility (such as for sanitation and cleaning)

Water can come from a public supplier, or be self supplied.


Understand What Has Been Included In The Water Footprint Of An Industry, Or Industrial Activity

Before we look at the numbers of water use by industry, one other thing to consider is the inclusions and exclusions of a water footprint of a whole industry, or industrial activity.

As a few examples:

– In power generation, the water use calculated for fossil fuels and nuclear (used for cooling for example), might be different to the water use calculated for hydropower 

– Waste water produced from industrial activities may or may not be included 

– The more indirect water use included in the industrial footprint, the bigger the water footprint can be. The same can be said for how far up and down the supply and production chain water use is included.


fmanet.org reinforces this:

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]


Direct vs Indirect Water Use

Direct water use is really any water used by the manufacturer or producer directly, and indirect water use is water used by that manufacturer or producer that is already embodied in the supplies or materials they buy or use (i.e. the water is used off site, or has already been used up the supply chain).


News.Thomasnet.com outlines the differences between direct and indirect water use:

… direct water usage [is] bringing water into a manufacturing facility for your industrial process —

… and indirect water usage [is when] 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.


Which Industries Use The Most Water In General?

Food, metals, paper, chemicals, and gasoline and oils (refined petroleum) industrial processes might use the most water.

Some more details on that …


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


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

– cdc.gov


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

– cdc.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 [and took into account both direct and indirect water usage]

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.

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


According to water.usgs.gov, in 2010, [of 306,000 Mgal/d of freshwater total withdrawn, the water was distributed amongst different industries as follows] …

1. Thermoelectric – 117,000 Mgal/d

2. Irrigation – 115,000 Mgal/d

3. Public Supply – 42,000 Mgal/d

[The rest of the industries from 4 to 8, in order were Industrial, Aquaculture, Domestic, Mining, and Livestock

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

There is also now 2015 stats available.]


According to 2010 US Water Withdrawals, water goes to:

1. Thermoelectric Power – 45%

2. Irrigation – 32%

3. Public Supply – 12%

[And the remainder in order from 4 to 8 are Self Supplied Industrial, Aquaculture, Mining, Self Supplied Domestic, and Livestock.]

– 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.


Some Notes About Water Use In Different United States Industries

From the news.thomasnet.com, and pubs.acs.org resources, some comments of our own relating to the information they provided that we thought were worth noting are:


– Meat Farming

On a water use per dollar of economic output of meat farming measurement, meat farming is lower than fruit, grain and vegetable farming

The production of animal products makes up almost a third of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector, and one third of that water is for beef cattle


– Fruit & Vegetable Farming

Wheat, corn, rice, cotton and sugarcane are responsible for the most water usage


– Power Generation

Water is used at almost every stage of power generation (and the resource lists all the stages and relevant water usage at each stage)

The thermoelectric-power industry uses the most water in the energy industry, and electrical power production uses more water than any other single industrial process

One measurement for water use in power generation is water usage per kilowatt hour of electricity produced


– Natural Gas vs Coal vs Bioenergy

Natural gas yields the most energy per unit volume of water consumed

A coal-fired power plant uses about 14 times more water

Bioenergy like soybean based biodiesel can be water intensive because there’s water required both to grow the soybeans, and turn it into energy


– Textiles and Garments

An industry which is one of the biggest waste water creators in the world

Most of the water used is used in ‘wet processing’ as well as dyeing of fabric


– Beverages

Such as sodas, beers, juices and other drinks

Most of the water usage comes from the farmed products (such as sugar, barley, coffee, etc), and not the production and bottling


– Automotive Manufacturing

‘surface treatment and coating, paint spray booths, washing/rinsing/hosing, cooling, air conditioning systems and boilers’ are some of the major water using activities in automotive manufacturing


– Other

It’s worth noting that there are industries like pets and the production of pet food that might go under the radar, but can use a lot of water in their production


Which Industries Use The Most Water In Europe?

On average, 44% of total water abstraction in Europe is used for agriculture [mostly irrigation], 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

– 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

[the large majority of it was for] non-consumptive use of water

Total consumptive use of water in 2015-16 was 16,132 gigalitres.

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

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. 

290 GL is recycled and re-used within the economy 

– abs.gov.au (read a complete breakdown at the abs.gov.au resource – the above is only a short edited summary)


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 [and] 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 

[tightening environmental regulations]

– Automotive Manufacturing

… PSA Peugeot Citroën [is becoming water conscious and seeks to clean and return all water used to the environment]

– news.thomasnet.com


Formal water strategies [and] … formal reports about water usage and conservation practices 

Companies are realizing that [water scarcity is a business risk for the future, and water conservation is in the best interests of companies]

… companies are using water metering and other technology solutions, such as water accounting, water-footprinting tools …and product lifecycle assessment (LCA) software that helps them outline the environmental impact of their products and processes.

[A long term’ Water stewardship [view of water by companies] toward permanent sustainability.

– news.thomasnet.com


Read more about how we might use water more efficiently in industry in this guide.


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

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