Asparagus grown in Peru and sold in the UK is commonly held up as a symbol of unacceptable food miles, but a report has raised an even more urgent problem: its water footprint. The study, by the development charity Progressio, has found that industrial production of asparagus in Peru's Ica valley is depleting the area's water resources so fast that smaller farmers and local families are finding wells running dry. Water to the main city in the valley is also under threat, it says. It warns that the export of the luxury vegetable, much of it to British supermarkets, is unsustainable in its current form. The Ica Valley is a desert area in the Andes and one of the driest places on earth. The asparagus beds developed in the past decade require constant irrigation, with the result that the local water table has plummeted since 2002 when extraction overtook replenishment. In some places it has fallen by eight metres each year, one of the fastest rates of aquifer depletion in the world. The UK is the world's sixth largest importer of 'virtual water', that is water needed to produce the goods it buys from other countries, according to WWF. Much of the UK's thirst is directly related to the boom in high-value food imports in recent years. The market in fresh asparagus is typical; it barely existed before the end of the 1990s. Now the UK is the third largest importer of fresh Peruvian asparagus, consuming 6.5 million kilos a year. Peru meanwhile has become the largest exporter of asparagus in the world, earning more than $450m a year from the trade. Around 95% of that asparagus comes from the Ica valley. In just 10 years asparagus cultivation has exploded to cover nearly 100sq km of reclaimed desert. Some of the largest producers have received loans from the World Bank's commercial investment arm totalling $20m (�12m) or more over that period. The trade has created around 10,000 new jobs in a very poor area, contributing significantly to Peru's growth, but it has already provoked conflict. When a World Bank executive went to investigate complaints about the water shortages in April he was shot at. "The water tragedy unfolding in this region of Peru should set alarms bells ringing for government, agribusiness and retailers involved in Ica's asparagus industry," said report author Nick Hepworth. The report accuses supermarkets and investors, including the World Bank, of failing to take proper responsibility for the impact of their decisions on poorer countries' water resources. "We need action now to ensure water is used sustainably in Ica and beyond," said Hepworth . Two wells serving up to 18,500 people in the valley have already dried up. Traditional small- and medium-scale farmers have also found their water supplies severely diminished. Competition for diminishing global water resources is emerging as one of the most pressing concerns for business as well as development organisations. The water shortages on Peru's Pacific coast are expected to get worse as climate change shrinks the glaciers that feed the Ica river system.


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