Another missing price tag — the water footprint of our consumption | by Americana Chen | February 2022

“VScarbon footprint” is no longer a new concept, and it has become something of a cliché. With the introduction of stricter carbon taxes and emission limits for businesses and massive global awareness campaigns, people are becoming more aware of the carbon emissions resulting from their daily activities. . While there are still people who argue that the carbon footprint concept is just a ‘scam’, a trick used by big polluting corporations to blame consumers for global warming, most people have now come to terms with the fact that their consumption choices leave a remarkable imprint on the environment.

Source: Unsplash

Most of us have access to abundant water resources, but in fact, according to the 2021 UN SDG report, 129 countries are not on track to have sustainably managed water resources by 2030, and 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries in 2018. Water, the most basic natural resource on earth and the basic necessity of life, is being mismanaged, polluted and depleted at a rapid rate without much attention being given to the issue.

Water footprints, like carbon footprints, are defined as the total volume of water used to produce the goods and services consumed by an individual, community or business; they can be calculated for the entire value chain of a product and help us assess, evaluate and drive strategic action towards sustainable water use.

If you asked someone, how would you reduce your water footprint? 99.9% of people will probably mention turning off the water tap when not in use, limiting your shower time, etc. This type of water consumption is called direct water consumptionwhile indirect water consumption is the most obscure, sometimes called “hidden” water. It’s the amount of water used in the production process of agricultural products and other commodities. There are other categorisations. In simple terms, green water footprints relate to rainwater used, blue water footprints relate to ground and surface water used, and gray water footprints relate to the amount of fresh water needed to dilute wastewater from a production process.

Three types of water footprint (image produced by the author)

These are the conceptual ideas. Let’s put them in numbers. Most of your personal water footprint comes from food. Globally, on average, agricultural and livestock products represent 86% of our water footprint. Think of the burger you just had at McDonald’s. According to the United Nations Environment Assembly, on average, a burger uses 3,140 liters of water, of which 2,500 liters are allocated to the beef patty. Massive amounts of water are used throughout the beef patty production chain, from irrigating the plants to feeding the cow (which is 98% of the total indirect water footprint), the water directly consumed by the cow, meat processing, transporting the patty and cooking. The pleasure of the juicy, meaty taste of a burger comes at the expense of the water resources used to produce it. Indeed, the contents of an Olympic swimming pool would amount to only 1,250 burgers.

Source: Unsplash

Another large part of the indirect water footprint comes from clothing. The fashion industry follows just after the agricultural industry, which is classified as the second most water-consuming industry in the world. the cotton growing is very water intensivewith a medium water footprint reaching 9981 liters per kg. Half of the world’s cotton crops are grown in dry regions, which means they rely heavily on irrigation methods that use significant amounts of water. In addition, cotton production has a detrimental effect on water quality. The intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers (which contain nitrogenous nutrients) is not only harmful to the environment, but also poses a significant risk to our health and well-being. According to the UNESCO Institute for Water Education, nitrogen leaking from plant roots can contaminate groundwater and surface water. If nitrate ions enter our drinking water, they could inactivate hemoglobin in our blood and reduce the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood. Cotton growers are aware of this consequence, but the growing fast fashion industry is demanding more cotton, forcing them to use more pesticides and fertilizers. The land used for cotton cultivation represents only 2.4% of global arable land, but represents 24% of the global insecticide market and 11% of global pesticide sales. (WWF)

Besides clothing and food, electricity consumption by households, gasoline and oil consumption in transport all contribute to increasing global water consumption, compounding the problem of water scarcity.

Going back to the example of the burger, plant-based burgers consume 75-95% less water than meat burgers. They also use 93-95% less land and generate 87-90% fewer emissions. Although vegetarianism is obviously more environmentally friendly, I believe that there are cultural and social factors behind meat consumption, and I agree that it is difficult to completely eliminate meat from our diets. Therefore, I suggest taking small steps and selecting two to three days a week for plant-based diets, which could already cut your mealtime water footprint by a third!

Not all cottons waste water. Organic cotton uses 88% less water and no toxic chemicals that could pollute water resources. International standards and agricultural programs such as GOTS and Better Cotton Initiative could help you identify clothing brands that source responsibly. There are also less water-intensive materials, such as hemp, Lyocell and bamboo fabric. Although polyester is a non-renewable material derived from petroleum, it is still less water intensive than cotton, consuming 5264 liters of water per kg. You can also try to participate in the second-hand clothing market and buy clothes that are better in quality and have a longer lifespan.

National geography: how your t-shirt can make a difference

According to the water footprint handbookThere are four steps to performing a water assessment, including:

  1. Set goals and scope
  2. Consideration of the water footprint
  3. Water Footprint Sustainability Assessment
  4. Formulation of the water footprint response

This provides a comprehensive guide for organisations, businesses or even regions to perform water footprint assessments and design strategies to make more sustainable use of water. Companies could also follow ISO frames: the ISO14046 framework on the water footprint specifies the principles, requirements and guidelines for assessing the water footprint of products, processes and organizations on the basis of life cycle analysis (LCA) and helps companies to declare their water footprint. As an individual, a simpler approach is to use online tools to calculate your daily water footprintsuch as those below:

Richard L. Militello