Our water footprints

My first blog began by asserting how scarce and precious freshwater really is, so before tackling some of the large scale issues relating to mismanaged water use, I thought I’d start at the bottom. With you. Before pointing our fingers at large scale industry and agriculture, we need to examine our own personal water use, and how extravagantly we use this resource without even thinking about it.

After a quick Google search  I came across the webpage of the Water Footprint Network, a  “dynamic, international learning community… a platform for connecting diverse communities interested in sustainability, equitability and efficiency of water use.”

This is a fascinating group, made up of a large list of partners from wide ranging international backgrounds, comprises of academic institutions (including our very own Massey University), government agencies, non-governmental organisations, businesses (Nestle, McCain, Heineken amongst others) and international organisations (including UNEP and WWF). The site also contains a long list of publications, from books, peer reviewed journals, conference and corporate publications.

After a few minutes of browsing through the website, I was hooked. I was quickly able to ascertain my personal water foot print, using both the quick method (looking at the average water footprint of a female meat eater in my country) and the extended one, which examined my personal habits. Unfortunately New Zealand wasn’t on the list of countries, and for the purpose of this exercise I became an Australian.

For those who are unsure, your water footprint is: the amount of water it takes to produce the goods and services you as an individual consume.

It turns out that my water footprint is 1172 cubic meters per year (based on my rough- and probably highly inaccurate- estimates of the foods I eat). It seems that a big influence on our water foot print is our gross yearly income. It’s heartening to know that there are some bright sides to being a poor student!

So how do I compare to everyone else? (In m3/yr per capita)

  • USA: 2842
  • Australia: 2315
  • Brazil: 2027
  • Denmark: 1635
  • Thailand: 1407
  • Global average: 1385
  • Egypt: 1341
  • Kenya: 1101
  • China: 1071

After browsing through the different countries I began to suspect that my estimates had indeed been rather too conservative, however I was pleased to see that China, so often  a target for criticism over  poor environmental practices, had such a low footprint.

So how much water does it take to produce the things we consume? I checked on some of my staples to see how they stacked up…

  • Beef: 15, 415L per kg
  • Beer: 74L per 200ml glass
  • Coffee: 130L per 1 cup of coffee
  • Chocolate: 1700L per 100g bar
  • Cheese: 3178L per kg
  • Milk: 255L per 250ml glass
  • Potatoes: 287L per kg
  • Tea: 27L per 250ml cup
  • Wine: 109L per 125ml glass

So clearly the worst offender is meat (which I don’t think is news to anyone), but it does amaze me that it takes almost 2000L of water to produce a chocolate bar!

So why should we care how much water we use? I really don’t think I could say this as well as The Water Footprint Network who state:

Freshwater is a scarce resource; its annual availability is limited and demand is growing. The water footprint of humanity has exceeded sustainable levels at several places and is unequally distributed among people… The water footprint helps to show the link that exists between our daily consumption of goods and the problems of water depletion and pollution that exist elsewhere, in the regions where our goods are produced

I found this a good reminder that there are things I could personally be doing in the interests of conservation and sustainability, such as:

  • Eat less meat, or cut it out all together
  • Drink tea rather than coffee, beer rather than wine
  • Buy local: transport fuel uses a huge amount of water
  • Replace cotton clothes with artificial fibres (cotton is a very water intensive crop)
  • Reuse water on the garden, or collect rainwater

For more information, I would definitely recommend taking a look at the Water Footprint Network website, and having a go at calculating your own water footprint. It’s interesting and accessible, and this movement is commendable for their effort, and commitment to environmental sustainability.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Our water footprints

  1. SFH

    Mine was 784. I should probably take more showers.

  2. H Glasgow

    But I don’t want to give up coffee! I’ll just wear spandex jumpsuits to make up for it.

  3. Amelie

    Not about water but about your “however I was pleased to see that China, so often condemned (perhaps unfairly) for poor environmental practices, had such a low footprint”. I really did not think that should be left like this and sad you wrote this (these stats are likely wrong plus if China has such a low number here it is because of the poor condition the majority of Chinese live in not because the government care for that at all!!!). Below are a few examples that should convince you that “perhaps unfairly” should never be written:
    Especially read the start of this:
    http://spice.stanford.edu/docs/113
    Other examples:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=chinas-three-gorges-dam-disaster
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061214-dolphin-extinct.html

    • Hi Amelie,

      Firstly, i just want to defend my statistics, which come from peer reviewed journal articles, see http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/China
      As to your further comments, my point (which i did not make clear enough, and i will rephrase) is that often the Western world is too quick to point the finger at China rather than examine themselves. This post was purely about how much water we each use, and it really seems that the average person in China uses less water personally than people in other countries. I certainly agree with you that water pollution is a huge problem (across the whole globe). I hope to discuss this issue in depth in future blogs. Thank you for drawing my attention to these articles, and for your feedback.

  4. Pingback: The way of the future? | The Water Watch

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