As the population climbs, will the water supply hold?

By Ryan Egly

With even Wal-Mart proudly displaying products touting their organic, “green”, or “all-natural” origins, the message is loud and clear: sustainability is cool. But amidst all the talk of carbon, pollution, and deforestation, the humble H20 has been mostly forgotten. Every product you buy, nearly every choice you make as a consumer, has an impact on the finite freshwater that sustains us. For something so elemental to our survival, how have water issues been relegated to the second tier of environmental concerns?

The lack of interest likely has to do with the apparent abundance of the actually scarce natural resource as well as the unfamiliarity of terms like water footprint and virtual water, which are used to describe its use.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, defines water footprint as “how much water is consumed, when and where, measured over the whole supply chain of a product”. Virtual water is a more narrow concept as it refers only to volumes, rather than the type of water (green, blue, grey). Water footprint figures allow for a more accurate estimation of a country’s water usage by accounting for the consumption of goods or services that have their origins outside of the country in question.

Much like a carbon footprint describes the amount of carbon emitted in the production and transportation of a product, these terms describe the amount of water it takes, including water for input crops, cleaning, or cooling.

However, water footprint breaks it down further, applying standards for blue (fresh water), green (water in the soil from rain), and grey (polluted water).

Water footprint lake

So how do these terms apply to us?

Broadly speaking, your role as a consumer far outweighs your direct, biological need for water (although this too is important). Consider the weekly laundry: would you have guessed that a pair of jeans takes roughly 2,900 gallons to produce (cotton is particularly water intensive crop) ? That quarter-pounder may cost you a couple bucks, but 480 gallons end up on the Earth’s tab. 37 gallons actually went into your morning cuppa joe.

Of course, these staggering numbers are hard to take seriously unless you take a look at what’s behind the calculations.

For the example above of jeans, the factors involved in a water footprint calculation include the resource intensive practice of single-crop cotton agriculture, cotton seed processing into lint, carding, spinning, and weaving into gray fabric, bleaching, dying, and transportation (of raw materials throughout the agricultural / industrial cycle as well as to the end market).

The hamburger example follows similar logic. The bulk of the water footprint of beef comes from the grain used to feed the animals. In the industrial food system, which supplies the vast majority of US beef, roughly 7 lbs. of grain are required for one pound of meat. I can easily do without the first two examples, but really get stuck on coffee, which I am sipping as I type this. One cup of the life-sustaining brew has a whopping 37 gallon water footprint, 4.7 times that of black tea.

Goods and services require water, and that water eventually finds its way back into the water cycle, so where is the problem?

One cause for concern lies in the scarcity of freshwater, a point easily overlooked in much of the United States, but inescapable in the areas of the world that produce much of what we find on our store shelves. Results from NASA satellites already warn of severe water shortages in parts of India, where nearly a quarter of the country is experiencing drought conditions and abnormal monsoon patterns. The same concerns are true for China, which faced droughts throughout the 1990’s and continues to search for solutions today. India and China produce 10 and 25% of global cotton, respectively.

Water footprint ice and mountains

By now most probably know that life-sustaining freshwater is only a small fraction of the Earth’s total water, but even most freshwater lies beyond our grasp. Around 66% of the world’s freshwater is stored in glaciers, while another 30% lies deep in geological layers not accessible to humans. Depending on the estimation, 1-4% of freshwater is left for human and ecological use.

Where does that leave us? In a word: aware. It’s easy to stand in the face of these numbers and despair, but knowing, as GI Joe would say, is half the battle. As much as Nvate champions new technology, the changes we need to make will not come with some amazing breakthrough, but by each of us doing our small part.

Below are a few ways to reduce your personal water footprint:

  • Keep things longer and think hard about new purchases
  • Buy used (yard sale, thrift store), or trade with friends
  • Clothes swap with friends for a change of pace rather than buying new
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of meat and animal products
  • Carpool / mass transit / plan to avoid multiple trips / buy a more fuel efficient car (if you have to buy a car at all) – or even better: bike
  • Be part of the discussion!

If we work together we can make sure the world’s 7 billionth person, born late last year, will also have a world worth living in.

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