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.