As the topic of sustainability slowly makes its way into the American consciousness it seems that one key component lurks perpetually below the surface: water. Even the 2007 Tennessee drought that made international news seems to have been largely forgotten. The London publication The Independent referred to Tennessee at the time as “a once-lush region where the American dream has been reduced to a single four-letter word: rain.”
The challenges presented by the looming crisis are significant, but not insurmountable, especially given the willpower and ingenuity of the Tennessee that I know.
The lack of interest likely has to do with the apparent abundance of the scarce natural resource as well as the elusive nature of the terms “water footprint” and “virtual water,” which are used to quantify its use. Broadly speaking, your role as a consumer far outweighs that as an end user (although this too is important). Consider the weekly laundry: would you have guessed that a pair of jeans has a water footprint of roughly 2,900 gallons (cotton is particularly water intensive)? Or around 480 gallons for a quarter pound hamburger, and 37 gallons for a cup of coffee? These staggering numbers are hard to take in until you take a look at the methodology behind a water footprint calculation and understand what the end result represents.
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.
For the example above of jeans, the factors involved in a water footprint calculation include the resource intensive practice of mono-crop cotton agriculture, cotton seed processing into lint for a 3:1 loss, 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 pounds of grain are required for one pound of meat. I can easily do without the first two, 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 here, 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 1990s and continues to search for solutions today. India and China produce 10 and 25 percent of global cotton, respectively.
Water in numbers: Yearly rainfall accounts for only .32% of the world’s freshwater reserves, which equates to a 300-year replacement period for the entire volume. On top of that, around 66 percent 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 percent is left for human and ecological use. Another important point is that freshwater flows in a dynamic system, at about .3 percent of the total volume of freshwater. Imbalances caused to this system by overuse can have dramatic effects, some of which we already see in the nightly news.
An understanding of the water footprint concept sheds light on the hidden water footprint of everyday goods and actions and serves as one of many indicators of how interconnected we are with the world—both with its fruits and its problems. If we work together we can make sure that world’s 7 billionth person, who is expected soon, will also have a world worth living in.
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 small car—or even better: bike.
Be part of the discussion!