What’s your “water footprint”?

Food for thought: Fruit and vegetables need much less water to produce than meat or dairy products

It’s a startling fact: the average first-world citizen “consumes” an average of 3 tonnes (or 792 US gallons) of water per day. But how is this possible, you might ask? Simple: It takes about a litre of water to produce every single calorie of food we eat.

Most of us don’t realize just how much water goes into producing our food or the products we buy, and while carbon may justifiably be getting all the limelight these days, water consumption issues will increasingly come to the fore in the years to come.

Fresh water, despite what many think, is a finite resource and it’s being depleting around the world much faster than we like to admit. Lakes in Africa are dying, aquifers from China to the US are drying up, and rain (which supplies close to half of the water we “consume”) is becoming more seldom. We are, without a doubt, running out of water.

According to Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine, many parts of the earth (notably sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South America and South-east Asia) are already suffering from an “economic scarcity of water”, meaning the lack of freshwater is having a detrimental impact on the economy. Closer to home, water is also becoming scarce. Much of the UK is now officially in drought due to an unusually low number of rainy days in the last two years.  A large swath of eastern Australia is also prone to severe drought, and according to Cribb, the Ogallala aquifer in the American mid-west which much of US agriculture depends on is being used so much that it may dry up within 25 years.

With the population of the earth hitting at least 9 billion (if not more) by 2050, we’ll need more water, not less. But the truth is that we’ll have to feed many more mouths and clothe many more bodies with far less water. Certainly, water conservation is going to become one of the hottest issues in next decades as we grapple head-on with the consequences of our current water-free-for-all. Cribbs argues that the answers won’t come easy and will need changes to our education and behaviour, coupled with water-use-based pricing for food and other products, new laws and technical solutions as well.

So what’s your water footprint? Check the graph below, and be amazed:

Food or product Water needed to produce it
Tomato 13 (litres)
 Potato 25
Slice of bread 40
Egg 135
Cup of coffee 140
Kilo of grain 1,500
Litre of palm oil 2,000
Hamburger 2,400
Cotton t-shirt 4,000
Kilo of chicken 6,000
Pair of leather shoes 8,000
Kilo of beef 15,000 (3,962 US gallons)

(Source: The Coming Famine, Julian Cribb)

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