Every year, the UNESCO publishes the UN World Water Development Report (UN WWDR) summarizing the global water scenario, documenting conservation efforts and their varying degrees of success achieved. While there are plenty of bleak statistics to be considered to describe the serious trouble we’re headed for, let’s just focus on one simple statement from this year’s UN WWDR.
3.6 billion out of our 8 billion population currently live in places that can suffer from water scarcity for at least one month of the year. This figure will rise to 5 billion (half of the world’s predicted 10 billion population) by 2050.
Before we shrug this off with a “Meh, I’m fine now, I’ll surely be in the safe half of 2050’s population”, take a look how quickly things went from good to bad to worse in Cape Town. Three years of poor rainfall resulted in the once water-rich city’s reservoir levels taking a plunge.
Cape Townians found themselves going from enjoying regular piped supply of water to waiting in long queues to collect the daily ration of 50 litres per day. Perhaps now would be a good time to evaluate our own daily water consumption.
Ever thought about the quantity of water you consume, in a day, a month or annually? Go ahead, make a guess. For starters, go check your latest water bill. Then perhaps, you can try using an online tool, such as The Water Calculator. Since most of the us are not in the practise of having to fetch the requisite water from a distant water source, it is quite likely that we will underestimate our daily water consumption by a wide margin. According to UN WWDR, the average water consumption can vary from about 300 litres per day (Australia) to less than 20 litres per day (sub-Saharan Africa). If yours is a figure between 100-150 litres per day, you’re doing an okay job.
If you did try out the water calculator, you would have already realized that our daily water consumption is not just limited to our usage of the liquid that comes out of our taps; rather, a larger portion is contributed by virtually all products and services that we utilize. Be it food, clothes, utensils, computers, cars or even the internet, vast amounts of water go into the various stages of production, transportation and facility maintenance.
The volume of water consumed/polluted to create a product can be captured by the water footprint, a metric proposed by Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra of the University of Twente, the Netherlands. Just like the carbon footprint, the water footprint of an entity can be calculated by looking into the components that go into its making. Let’s consider a few examples from the incredible work carried out by The Water Footprint Organization. When one takes into account the water used for irrigation, each kilogram of apples consumes 822 litres of water. The water intensive rice requires 2500 litres per kg. A 100 gram chocolate bar uses up 1700 litres of water. It should be noted that water footprint for a particular crop would vary from region to region depending on the prevalent climatic and soil conditions. Find the complete list here.
‘Virtual water’ is hidden away not just in the products we consume, it is also a necessary component for the energy we utilize. For instance, 90% of thermal power plants in India use freshwater as a coolant. Thus water conservation goes beyond the obvious steps such as taking shorter showers, it is also intricately tied to our consumption pattern.
Here are some water, food and product centered steps that you might have never viewed in this light before:
- While buying appliances such as washing machines, shower taps and flushes, choose ones that work with minimal water. Here’s an (infomercial?) on water-less urinals for offices.
- Consider installing a grey water (gently used water, eg. showers) reuse system so that you would no longer be flushing down good clean water. Here’s a good article that will help you get started with grey water harvesting for homes in India.
- If you own a lawn and you use freshwater for it, you really must look into some alternatives at the earliest. In case you have a sprinkler system installed, did you know that it is recommended to run the sprinkler for long durations infrequently, rather than for the same fixed duration everyday? Read more here.
2. Food choices:
- A plant based diet is always less water intensive than a meat based one (the animals being reared for meat need to eat, drink and be kept clean. The butchering, packaging and preservation further takes up water.)
- The water footprint of meat shows a wide range: chicken (4325 litre/kg), beef (15400 litre/kg), sheep (10400 litre/kg), pig (6000 litre/kg) and goat (5500 litre/kg).
- For the same amount of protein, milk requires about double the amount of water than the average pulse crop.
There appears to be a strong case for moving towards vegetarianism, or even veganism when one considers the water aspect alone.
3. Product choices:
- Shop local. Promotes not just your local economy, but also cuts back on products that had to be shipped to reach you, resulting in energy/petroleum also being utilized in the process.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle, especially the water intensive industries such as clothing, plastic and cans. Cutting down on purchase helps save all the virtual water that goes into product manufacturing.
- Drive less; use public transport.
Looks like minimalism is not just aesthetics and economics, it is also a responsible step towards better water security.
Meanwhile, let us also look into a few community based solutions:
- Ensure that the vegetation in your region is not depleting the groundwater reserves.
- How much virtual water are you exporting? Even during the early phases of the drought Cape Town continued to export bulk volumes of wine, which was later identified and curbed. Pakistan exports substantial amount of rice despite 84% of its population experiencing severe drought for at least a month.
- Examples suggest that checking for and rectifying leaks would bring down the global fresh water consumption by a whopping 10%.Reducing the pressure in the water pipeline has been found effective in Cape Town.
- Adopt new technologies that are aligned with water conservation goals. (Hopefully another article elaborating on this point coming out soon).
A lot of us find ourselves busy building our lives and chasing our dreams that we believe we do not have the time to care for the environment. Had water conservation been as easy as clicking a button or donating some money, most of us wouldn’t think twice about it. It is our apathy and inertia to break free from established norms (flushing down potable water!?) that’s driving us all towards the global day zero.
The place in the picture above used to be a lake!
The best articles out there:
Would love to hear your thoughts on our collective water safety!