Your Water Footprint & The Coming Water Crisis

Water is Scarce
Water is Scarce

You leave them everywhere you walk, but recently the term “footprint” has being used to describe your impact upon the planet in broader terms than the impression of your feet. The most common one tossed around these days is our Carbon Footprint (see global climate change). A more recently developed spin on the footprint term is the Water Footprint: how much water you consume through your actions (directly and indirectly).

Of course you use water in your day-to-day life: you take a shower, drink water, water your lawn, et cetera. There is another way we use water: through the consumption of goods. The food we eat takes water to grow (a lot more than you might think). The clothes we wear come from crops that require water. Even the cars we drive require water-intensive processes to create them. Everything we do creates a ripple through the world and we can often take massive amounts of the most basic resource needed for survival on Earth: fresh water.

Your Water Footprint

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Besides effecting the local area served by the aquifers when they dry, today’s global economy is set up in such a way where money can supply water-poor countries with the food, clothing, and products from water-rich countries. The amount of water it takes to create or grow something is called virtual water. While my jeans don’t actually have 2,866 physical gallons of water in them, it did take that much water to produce them.

As Josh Harkinson points out in a recent Mother Jones article,

“Far from being a local, static resource, water has become a global commodity, part of a robust trade in what is known as ‘virtual water.’ When Egypt, say, imports a pound of wheat from Australia, it is virtually importing the 156 gallons of water it took to grow it… Countries with scare water supplies can now sustain populations far beyond the limits their own farms and fields can support.” [emphasis added]

As you can see, the indirect uses of water are quite large in comparison to the direct ones. All of the choices you make in consumption takes a certain amount of water. This is the basic definition for your Water Footprint. Americans consume twice as much as the average world citizen – no big surprise there, right? Find out what your water footprint is here.

Our ability to transport the food, clothing, and other water-intensive products has been made very easy by the use of fossil fuels, another quickly-depleting resource. So what happens when we run out of water or run out of the cheap fuel to transport all the virtual water supporting these overgrown populations? A crisis the likes of which our global society has never seen.

The Coming Water Crisis

Close to three-quarters of the planet’s surface is covered in water. However, Earth’s accessible fresh water supply only accounts for one percent of this water. Since 1950 the world’s water usage has tripled, while the worlds wetlands have been cut in half. As we grow we use more and more water, creating dams and irrigation to feed our growth. The water left over is becoming increasingly unsafe to swim or fish – 40 percent of US rivers are polluted to this point. (Harkinson, “What’s your water footprint,” Aug 09)

Nearly all of our fresh water is stored in underground aquifers, the largest in the US is the High Plains (Ogallala) Aquifer. 75% of the water in aquifers is considered “non-renewable” because they takes centuries to regenerate. (Issues in Ecology, Spring 01) We’re using the Ogallala aquifer to produce most of the food in the mid-west; which accounts for 20% of the US production of wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle. This aquifer, like most tapped by humans, is being drained faster than it is being replenished, loosing about 2.7 feet a year.

The majority of our water is used for agriculture and only about 6 percent of our water consumption is accounted for in daily, immediate uses (showers, drinking water, et cetera). Most of our agriculture, however, is incredible inefficient. Of course, our water rights are set up not to reward the efficient ones, just the ones that have been around the longest.

We’ve suffered oil and other resource crises in the past because we have used up the resource. Water is a resource that can regenerate (arguable, so is oil, but it takes a hell of a long time).  If water is used at the same rate that it regenerates we have reached a sustainable scale for water use. Today we are using up our reserves – our savings of water. Aquifers and other reserves are drying up around the world.

In order to conserve water we need to reign in our efficiency in everything we do, most importantly in our agriculture. We also need to focus on reward those that have high efficiency, while taxing those that waste. You can make your own choices in the water game by buying from sustainable and local farmers, and thinking about what you purchase elsewhere. Do you really need another pair of jeans? That’s a lot of water.

Applying Footprints to Create a Sustainable Scale

Sustainable scale is what it sounds like: creating an economy with a size that the ecosystem can support indefinitely. This means being able to recognize how much the ecosystem can regenerate and absorb and relating it to how much we consume and the amount of waste we create. Defining these numbers can be a bit ambiguous because of the vast amount of variables in the equation, but footprints are a good place to start.

What about other resource footprints? It’s a great concept to bring attention to the human impact on the environment. These metrics will help shape our ability to find a sustainable scale of human society. How do you measure up? The Ecological Footprint by Redefining Progress reports that the average human footprint is equivalent to the use of 1.5 Earths! We’re overstretching the biocapacity of our planet by 50% – where are those resources coming from? Our children’s supply…

Things you can do

There are ways to reduce your water usage. Simply being more efficient can save a large quantity of water, but there are things we can cut out as well. Here is a short list of actions you can take:

  • Install low-flow shower heads, faucets, and garden nozzles
  • Take shorter showers
  • Ditch the lawn (nearly a third of our water use comes from maintaining grass lawns!)
  • Buy local foods, preferably from water-efficient farmers
  • Install high-efficient washers
  • Wash a full load of laundry and dishes to cut down the number of times you use the washer
  • Cut out the disposal and switch to compost
  • Insulate your pipes (cuts down on lag-time from the water heater)
  • Install a in-line water heater
  • Use mulch in the garden to help keep moisture in the soil and use drip irrigation to water efficiently
  • Use a commercial car wash, they are more efficient than your driveway method and often recycle the water they use.
  • Do not use bottled water – 90% it is just filtered tap water and costs 1900 times more, not to mention it is environmentally irresponsible and wastes energy and resources to produce.

Also, check out these sites for more information:

3 thoughts on “Your Water Footprint & The Coming Water Crisis”

  1. How can you write an article like this and ignore the elephant in the room?

    One of the primary contributors to water pollution is a diet of “meat”, predictably so. You don’t have to be Einstein to work this out, but, as it happened, Einstein himself did warn us long ago that: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

    You’d have to wade through life blinkered not to know this, but here is one article for starters:

    1. I agree, that is one of the main contributors, notice in that chart where meat items land – pretty high numbers! But this article wasn’t just about that, more about our products. I’m a vegetarian for the very same reasons you link to (among other reasons). Thanks for the link!


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