H2O Footprint: Do We Really Know How Much Our Drinking Water is Worth?

water drop

Our lives depend on water, but we’re guzzling much more than our fair share.

Water is essential to every part of our daily lives, whether we are coming into direct contact with the liquid or not. Water is necessary for anything from keeping us hydrated to growing the food we eat and many of the raw materials needed to produce the objects we use. We tend to see water as a readily available substance that appears when we turn on the tap, not realizing how every single choice we make affects the world’s constantly declining supply of water. We are currently using up so much of the world’s water that it is projected that by 2030 water demand will exceed supply by 40 percent. That’s only 17 years away – what will we do?

It takes up to 2,000 gallons of water a day to sustain the lifestyle of an average U.S. citizen, and according to water expert Sandra Postel, more than half of it goes into our diet. A single pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water while 132 gallons of water are required for a pound of wheat and 119 gallons for a pound of potatoes. Beverages also have highly varying water footprints, as 1 gallon of coffee requires 880 gallon of water, while 1 gallon of tea requires 128 gallons of water and a gallon of wine requires 1,008 gallons of water. We can obviously make wiser dietary choices when it comes to our water footprint by choosing lower impact foods. But it seems that most of the country has been slow to do so, seeing as we consumed more than 52 billion pounds of meat in 2012 for example.

Global agricultural production alone accounts for 92 percent of the total water footprint, but food crops make-up only part of the equation. Textiles, biofuels, paper, fiber composites, coal and oil all require water use. We use these resources all the time, but not many of us consider that more than 700 gallons of water were used to produce just one of our many cotton t-shirts or that more than 13 gallons are necessary for five sheets of paper.

One of the main reasons our society does not understand the true value of water is our disconnection from the origin of our products and their supply chains. Most of the water use for the products we consume occurs far away from our daily lives as several large companies have outsourced their production to countries where water is over-exploited and valued at lower prices. Half of China’s industrial production and 40 percent of its agricultural activity occurs in the country’s driest regions despite extremely high risk of damage to long-term water supplies. The ‘Made in China’ label can means much more than possible labor exploitation, poor working conditions and cheap materials – it also demonstrates how the largest water footprint of the USA lies in the Yangtze River basin.

Fresh drinking water is another issue that many of us in first-world countries don’t really have to consider, as we can easily get it from our filtered tap or buy it from the store. Although 70 percent of the Earth is covered by water, most of it is saline and ocean-based. Only 2.5 of the world’s water is fresh, with only 1 percent of it accessible, as the rest is trapped in glaciers and snowfields. Water scarcity already affects 2.7 billion people every year, but the amount of people facing that problem is set to grow. It’s estimated that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed or water scarce regions.

So what can you do to make a difference? The first step is to educate yourself, and understand the water footprints of the different products you buy, and find possible alternatives. Our choices as consumers make a significant difference to the way businesses operate worldwide. National Geographic has created an online platform that allows you to compare the water footprints of different agricultural crops and gives tips on how to conserve water on a daily basis. Educating yourself on greywater systems and how to effectively implement them in your toilet or irrigation makes an immense difference. You can also ask businesses and municipalities to adopt sensible water recycling schemes by writing to them, so make your voice heard. We are already in the middle of a water crisis, it just hasn’t become as pertinent in the lives of those who still have access to clean water. Let’s realize it by becoming aware and active in curbing the effects while we still can – every drop counts.

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