Most people on a day-to-day basis take for granted the water we use. It is either our ignorance or the ability to disregard certain facts in the world which have led to the global water crisis facing the planet. The water footprint is a key tool to drive change and help businesses and governments solve this issue facing our future generations. In the 1990s alone, some 8.1 tons of natural resources were used to satisfy a person’s need, while in 2015, almost 12 tons of resources were extracted per person. Water consumption alone during this period increased from 3.32 trillion cubic meters to 3.87 trillion cubic meters by 2010 (ourworldindata.org). The increasing consumption of water means that it is essential to consider our water footprint to benefit our environment. So what exactly is our water footprint and how can we take action to reduce it?
What is your Water Footprint?
The water footprint is used by many countries all over the world to help reduce their water consumption. It shows the total amount of water used to produce goods or services that are consumed by a person, community, business, etc. To fully understand it, there are two factors that need to be considered: these being our direct and indirect footprint.
Direct water footprint
Our direct water footprint can easily be defined as the water we use at home. It is the water flowing through the mains of our buildings and plumbing systems across many parts of the globe.
Indirect water footprint
Indirect water footprints refer to the freshwater consumption and pollution associated with the production of the goods and services consumed by us; it can sometimes be referred to as virtual water (watereducation.org). For example, most people are unaware it takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce a single pair of jeans, (Curiosity) 168 litres of water to produce 1 pint of beer, and a standard cup of coffee has a water footprint of 130 litres. (Guardian, 2013).
When we start to dive deeper into the water used to produce our food, drinks, clothes, etc. the question of why we need to reduce our water footprint becomes more apparent. It uncovers two fundamental areas of concern for our planet: water use and water consumption.
This is the amount of water that is withdrawn from its natural resource in order to respond to the demand of agricultural, industrial and domestic users. For example, in 2019 agriculture irrigation solely accounted for 70% of water withdrawal worldwide (worldbank.org) and this is expected to increase in the future as demand rises. The United States is the largest user of industrial water, withdrawing 300 billion cubic meters per year and with the population expected to grow to almost 10 billion globally by 2050, fears of severe water scarcity are expected to boom simultaneously.
Water consumption is the amount of water extracted from its natural source, however, it cannot be returned as it is no longer available for reuse. Most of this is evaporated or integrated into the goods and services we use. For example, out of 70% of the water used in agriculture irrigation, around 50% of that is estimated to be lost. This greatly challenges our efforts when it comes to finding solutions such as recycling water because most of the water used can no longer be retrieved.
Both water use and consumption have growing pressure upon the environment and can contribute to water scarcity, droughts, water exploitation, and water pollution. With only 2.5% of the earth’s water being fresh (National Geographic), it is clearly very important for us to do the best we can to reduce our water footprint.
Global Water Crisis Facts and Impact
The effect of our water use and consumption across the globe to produce goods and services can be felt across many countries. The exploitation of this resource has rippled throughout our societies calling for a state of urgency. We are at an inflection point when it comes to managing our water supplies and if change does not happen now, we could see the devastating consequences of our negligence. Take a look below at some facts about the impact of our water use/consumption and its effect upon the planet.
Facts and Impact Section
- By 2040 most of the world will not have enough water to meet the demand year-round
- The average hamburger takes 2,400 litres of water to produce. (National Geographic)
- By 2025, an estimated 8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity. (National Geographic)
- By 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. (WHO)
- Currently, there are 435 million people taking water from unprotected wells and springs. (WHO)
- 144 million people collecting untreated surface water from lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams which will make them ill and experience health issues. (WHO)
- Freshwater stress has caused an increase in droughts and water scarcity globally
- In 2018 Cape Town experienced a severe drought and had to introduce a 90-day countdown to Day Zero. (City Lab)
- It is estimated we have 326 million trillion gallons of water, 97% saltwater, 2% frozen freshwater, 1% liquid freshwater.
- More than 1.2 billion people now lack access to clean drinking water (Science Daily)
- The desalination of seawater as a solution to the problem is very expensive and inefficient. It takes 1 kWh or more of energy to desalinate a cubic meter of seawater (Forbes)
- Groundwater supplies drinking water for 51% of the total U.S. population and 99% of the rural population. (groundwater.org). It is a precious resource that is vital to plants and natural habitats.
- Groundwater contamination is rising due to the resource being overused by human activities.
How to Reduce Your Water Footprint at Home
We have clearly established above why it is important to reduce our water footprint, now we must look at how we can alleviate the stress upon the environment. Take a look at some quick tips below to help you reduce both your direct and indirect water footprint.
Reducing your Direct Water Footprint
- Do not clean your vegetables under a running tap, use a bowl of water instead. (Lenntech)
- Do not fill your kettle all the way. Boil your kettle with just the right amount of water.
- Turn off your taps completely. Do not ignore a leaky tap. It is thought that fixing a leaky tap could help save thousands of litres of clean water in a year. Need help? Check out these useful tips to get started. (Guardian)
- Turn the washing machine on when it is full. Save water by completely filling the washing machine, not turning it on half full.
- Keep a jug of water in your fridge. This way you can have cold water without running the tap and you can manage your water use.
- Wash your car with a bucket and a sponge. This way you will not waste perfectly clean water through a hose.
- Invest in an energy efficient dishwasher and washing machine. This will save you money and save water.
- Install a modern dual flush toilet. These conserve much more water than your standard toilet which uses a greater amount of volume.
- Take short showers instead of long baths. It is estimated that an average 8 minute shower uses 62 litres of water as opposed to 80 litres when we take a bath. (Guardian)
Reducing your Indirect Water Footprint
- Watch what you eat. Being more conscious of what we put into our mouths makes a huge difference. For example, buying 1 kg of chocolate has an average global water footprint of 25,000 litres of water. (waterfootprint.org)
- Use fewer animal products. Most animal products have a higher water footprint than fruits and vegetables. Reducing your meat intake and purchasing fewer animal products is a great way to reduce your indirect water footprint.
- Switch from eating red meat to white meat. If you are not quite ready to become a vegetarian then you can significantly reduce your water footprint by eating chicken as opposed to beef. 1 kg Chicken, for example, has a water footprint of 3,900 litres compared to beef at a staggering 15,500 litres.
- What you drink also matters. Your standard 125ml cup of coffee has a water footprint of around 130 litres compared to a cup of tea at only 30 litres.
- Do you take sugar with your tea? Cutting down your sugar consumption can benefit both you and the planet. Just a kilo of sugar from sugar canes takes 1,500 litres to produce. Even if you are not ready to take sugar out of your tea or coffee then reducing your fizzy drinks, sweets, etc. makes a massive difference.
- Buy more sustainable clothes. What clothes you wear matters and with fast fashion constantly pushing the latest trends out, this industry has one of the biggest impacts on water use. It is estimated that just 1 cotton t-shirt requires 2,700 litres to produce. (The River Trust)
- Buy a water saving shower head. This is an excellent way to control the pressure and volume of water that comes out of your shower, saving you water and money at the same time.
How businesses can reduce their water footprint
We have established that there is plenty that people can do at home to reduce their water footprint, however, businesses need to recognise that they have a larger responsibility when it comes to diminishing their water footprint. Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility should be woven into the fabric of every business plan and companies that successfully take action and reduce their water footprint can make a tremendous positive impact on the environment. Here are some simple steps that your business can take to start saving water today.
Most water is under appreciated in businesses; the manufacturing and production process to provide goods and services, including the supply chain process, puts a great deal of stress upon our natural resources. Companies should clearly define desired outcomes to manage their water consumption. Developing business sustainability goals that focus upon the reduction of water used is an essential first step to valuing water usage.
Measure Water Consumption
By measuring the water consumption of your company, realistic targets can then be created that look at reducing water consumption. Hire a professional to come into the business and conduct a full water audit in order to attain a clear understanding of how much water your facilities are using. This can potentially identify any inefficient ways you are wasting water saving you money in the long-term.
Once you have an idea of how much water your business is using, it is time to take action. You can review and analyse the findings and assess where your business is wasting water, and take the opportunity to further maximise your operations. You can also compare your water usage against industry benchmarks to then set realistic goals in reducing your water footprint. Collaboration is key at this stage and engaging with suppliers (Guardian) on water management solutions may provide you with the best practices to help save water which is relatively inexpensive and simple to implement.
Do not give up
Finally, it is important that once you have taken action to stay in control of your water management. Ensure that you are maintaining success and setting an example to your competitors, community and more. Promote your efforts and commitments to reducing your water footprint; this will ensure others will not only value your company more but also follow in your footsteps. Embedding a sustainable culture in your organisation can do wonders for your business and the planet.
The Water Footprint Assessment
The Water Footprint Assessment is an excellent tool to use which can help develop a broad range of strategies and policies from environmental, social and economic perspectives for your business. It is a four phase assessment developed by the Water Footprint Network (Water Footprint Network) and will even help you calculate your company’s water footprint.
To conclude, our water footprint is a very important measurement that can aid in mitigating our impact on freshwater resources across the globe. We have ascertained that if we are to reduce our water footprint, we must consider two factors; these being our direct and indirect water footprint. More importantly, we can see that there are many quick and simple ways that you can implement today to reduce your water footprint simply around the home. We have covered how businesses can look to lower their water footprint and make the first steps to save water with simple and inexpensive methods. A key point to take from this is that it is becoming increasingly alarming that water scarcity in many countries will increase rapidly over the next few decades. It is detrimental that we are active in our approach to reduce water footprints both at an individual and organisation level. With these easy home practices, you can start reducing your water footprint today which will help safeguard our current and future generations from the global water crisis.
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