Friday, May 16, 2008

What is Your Virtual Water Footprint?

There is much discussion lately about carbon footprints and how we can help to try to reduce climate change. This is also a topic of some controversy, especially over the amount of potential harm that will occur in the near future. Yet much of that harm remains potential. We don't have millions of people currently dying because of climate change. But are we concentrating more on trying to prevent potential harms and ignoring actual harms that are occurring now?

Do you know what is a virtual water footprint? Have you seen much discussion on this topic? Before a few days ago, I was unfamiliar with the term and don't recall seeing any prior discussions on this matter. Yet it may be just as important, if not more, than carbon footprints and far less controversial.

Discover magazine (June 2008) has an article titled “Virtual Water-A Smarter Way to Think About How Much H2O You Use” by Thomas M. Kostigen. It raises some compelling questions about water use.

Let us start with a disturbing fact. Up to 5 million people die each year from lack of water or water-related illness. That is a clear and immediate harm that should be addressed. Fresh water is a limited resource and there are many countries with significant water shortages. If we waste water, that impacts the rest of the world.

So what is a virtual water footprint? “Virtual water is a calculation of the water needed for the production of any product from start to finish.(p.22) So let us consider some examples. A 5 ounce glass of wine has a virtual water footprint of 38 gallons. A banana is 27 gallons, a slice of bread is 10 gallons, and a 12 ounce glass of beer is 28 gallons. This applies to non-food products as well. For example, a pair of leather shows has a footprint of 4400 gallons. Agriculture though accounts for about 70% of all water use in the world.

The average person has a total virtual water footprint of about 328,140 gallons each year. But, the average for the United States is 656,012 gallons, the largest on the planet. You can go to Water Footprint and estimate your own virtual water footprint. They also have more reading material concerning these issues.

Scientists estimate that we must increase our water supply by 14-17% by 2030 just to meet dietary needs. The only way to do that is to conserve our virtual water footprint. Did you know that we currently lose 30-50% of the food we grow and all the virtual water in it, by the time it is ready for consumption. These losses occur in harvesting, production, processing, transportation, and storage. Plus we must consider all those leftovers that get tossed out.

We can all take steps to reduce wasteful water use and reduce our virtual water footprint. Just consider how much food and drink you may throw away. The Water Footprint website has many other suggestions.

But there are larger questions as well. Why is your carbon footprint so prevalent in the news yet the virtual water footprint gets so little press? Is climate change just more fashionable a cause, allowing us to ignore a problem that leads to almost 5 million deaths a year? Are we asking wine makers about their water conservation methods? Are we asking our farmers about it? If you want to be carbon neutral, do you also want to be water neutral?

I recommend you read the Discover article as well as check out Water Footprint. It will raise your awareness of this issue.


Gabriella Opaz said...

wow, interesting Richard. I did my extended calculation on how much water I consume, and it says I'm around 1823 cubic meters per year. Is that good, bad, average?

When we first moved to Madrid, our roommates role modeled how important it was to turn off the shower while you wash your hair, shave, etc. I can't say that I've followed their example to a tee, but I try. Ryan and I both agree that we should create better habits, especially because we live in country that is becoming desert at rapid speed, but habits are tough to break. Basically what I'm saying is that I don't have an excuse ;-) We all must think twice!

BFW (Tammy) said...

That's crazy! You think about water conservation in the back of your head (at least I do), but we rarely put forth the effort to actually do anything about it. I bet most people (in the US) only keep track of water usage when local government steps in and puts a water ban on a town b/c of droughts.

We visit St. John every few years and all the water on the island is rain water that is collected in cisterns under homes. There are water companies that deliver water for when you run out... but sometimes that can take days or weeks to arrive.

The general practice on the island is to conserve water as much as possible. Five minute showers, only flush with #2, turn faucet off while brushing teeth, etc.

Maybe we should try doing the same? Thanks for enligtening us Richard. I used to get Discover Magazine and loved it! Now I just get a million food magazines, so I don't have time for anything else!

Richard Auffrey said...

Hi Gabriella: Your number is higher than the average but probably fairly low in many other respects. My own quick calculator was 5099, so much higher than yours.

This is definitely something that all of us are guilty of, to one degree or another. We must all think twice about such matters. The article certainly opened up my eyes to the issue. And this is a topic that more people should know about too.

Hi Tammy: You are right as well that this is not something we generally think about. And even with town water bans, plenty of people still violate those bans. Awareness of the problem is thus crucial.