Friday, July 25, 2008

Your Water Footprint

A friend asked me today about the environmental reason for "preserving water." For those if us in big East Coast cities, water appears plentiful. We use this potable water, it moves through municipal systems, is treated, and available again as potable water after a certain amount of time. Why all this focus on capturing rainwater and minimizing potable water use? Can't we just continually clean and reuse it?

Though we both knew there was a flawed logic in this, we had trouble explaining it. After a little research, I think I get why saving water is important for our planet. Here's the logic. Much of this info pulled from

1. We don't have much fresh water to start with. First off, of all the water in the world, only 3% is fresh. Less than one third of 1% of this fresh water is available for human use. The rest is frozen in glaciers or polar ice caps, or is deep within the earth, beyond our reach.

2. More people over time will be using a limited amount of fresh water. Global water consumption has risen almost tenfold since 1900, and many parts of the world are now reaching the limits of their supply. World population is expected to increase by 45% in the next thirty years, while freshwater runoff is expected to increase by 10%. UNESCO has predicted that by 2020 water shortage will be a serious worldwide problem. One third of the world's population is already facing problems due to both water shortage and poor drinking water quality. Effects include massive outbreaks of disease, malnourishment and crop failure. In addition, excessive use of water has seen the degradation of the environment costing the world billions of dollars.

3. "Embodied" water requirements are increasing. Embodied water is not the water you drink, wash your clothes/dishes with or flows through your toilet, but the amount of water used during the growing, processing and transportation of the goods we use or consume, or the services we use. As an example, it takes 37 gallons of fresh water to produce 1 cup of coffee or 4,227 gallons of water to produce 2.2 pounds of beef.

4. The need for increased water consumption can have significant negative environmental impacts. For example:
  • Building more dams. This has severe environmental effects such as destruction of wilderness, creation of greenhouse gases from rotting vegetation, altered stream flows and degraded ecological health. It’s also very costly.

  • Maintaining other infrastructure for water supply and use. This includes costly upgrades and maintenance of pipes, sewers and treatment facilities. Three feet of storm water drain costs about $2,000 to install.

  • Erosion, salinity and desertification. Water consumption for agriculture alters the natural water cycle. This degrades production areas and intensifies other environmental problems such as land clearing and desertification. Salinity is said to directly cost Australia over 1.5 billion dollars a year, but true figures are probably a lot higher than this.

  • Degradation of water bodies. Many of our rivers, wetlands and bays are degraded. This is partly due to the high levels of water extracted, as well as polluted surface runoff and storm water flushed into them.

I know there has been a lot of buzz about carbon footprint lately, but honestly, I think we may suffer a clean water crisis before anything else. You may already measured your carbon footprint, if so, kudos. Now it's time to take your water footprint. Go here:

I just used the quick version of the calculator and it says that my water footprint is 4,347 in cubic meters per year as an average meat eater in the U.S. The global average is 1,243. What can I do to drastically reduce my consumption? One way is to become a vegetarian! Here's the breakdown of water consumption by food type.

The other significant way to reduce my individual water footprint is to move to Tanzania. See the Institute for Water Education's Water Footprints of Nations to see your country's per capita footprint (and other data).

But if you're an American and a meat eater who doesn't plan on giving up being either, start with taking some steps at home. Try this site for tips on saving water in the kitchen, the laundry, bathroom, in your pool and elsewhere. And share what you learn with others (and this blog).

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