If your answer to the above question stops at the quantity you use for drinking, cooking, washing, it is incomplete. Even if you don’t quite know how much water you use everyday, through this particular blog, I hope to share how each of us benefits in daily life from far more water than meets the eye. I also hope to briefly explain the changing landscape of water. The answer lies in terms such as virtual water and water footprint. ‘What do Elton John, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Virtual Water all have in common?’ asks Tony Allan in his book Virtual Water. The answer is simple enough. Tony tells us that ‘They all required a name-change to get noticed.’ He should know best. He coined the term after-all. In today’s digital age, thanks to virtual teams and virtual meetings, one may have a vague yet innate understanding of the term. It refers to ‘embedded water’. Not the water that is actually physically present but the amount of water required to produce anything and everything. It seems simple enough. Yet it was radical in its time. As cumbersome as accounting processes are, remarkably, water has never been considered as a factor of production in its own right even though economists do take land and raw materials into consideration. Water plays a pivotal role in the world economy yet has been ignored for the larger part of the century. But that’s changing, thanks to visionary academicians like Prof.Tony Allan, Prof.Arjen Hoekstra and their teams and other heroes from the non-academic world like the people of Plachimada (a tiny village in the state of Kerala, India) who help us see things anew.
There are many doom and gloom stories about water scarcity. It is important to note that the world isn’t running out of water per se. Far from it. It is just that we depend on freshwater far more than we realize. Not only are these sources being threatened due to rampant destruction of ecosystems but the pattern of availability is also changing due to climate change. Much has been said on this issue. But concepts such as virtual water and water footprint (as articulated by Hoekstra) help us separate the wheat from the chaff. We’ve all been told sometime or the other to turn off the tap while brushing our teeth, take shorter showers, put a brick in the toilet cistern to save water. They are all important. More so when we realize how all our actions contribute to the whole picture of local water security. However, Tony adds a game-changing dimension to this when he informs us that most of the water we use at a personal level, comes through our food consumption. In the case of the US or Europe, the average non-vegetarian diet consumes about 5 cubic metres of water EACH DAY. To put that into perspective, it is roughly about 15 bathtubs filled with water. In comparison, a vegetarian diet consumes about 2700 litres of water per day. That is roughly about eight bathtubs. ‘Forget bricks in the toilet cistern’ he says,’ going vegetarian would save many lifetimes of toilet trips.’ The latest research from Hoekstra and team also reiterates this. ‘ Nearly one-third of the total water footprint of agriculture in the world is related to the production of animal products. The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of crop products with equivalent nutritional value.’ See source.
Delve deeper into water footprints and you will find yourself also being surprised when you realize how much water goes into producing stuff around us. Take for instance an A4 Sheet of paper. Its water footprint is 10 litres PER SHEET. Now, one ream of paper contains 500 sheets. So that means every ream of paper that we use, required about 5000 litres of water to produce it. Using Tony’s analogy again, that is equivalent to roughly about 15 bathtubs filled with water.Take another example – leather. Of course we don’t purchase leather by the kilo but we certainly use enough of it in our leather sofas, shoes, bags, jackets, belts and other household items. The water footprint of leather is 16,600 litres per kg. If you care enough to actually trace the exact quantity of leather in such a household and do the math, soon you’ll be dealing with numbers that are beyond everyday comprehension/care. (You can download a nifty iPhone application from this site. The application lets you learn about how much water our everyday food and beverages really consume.)
Yet we hardly stop and think about this. In itself, this usage of water is not a problem. It only becomes one when you fail to consider the context around where that water comes from, as the Coca-cola company learned from a very painful experience at Plachimada. A multi-national company with revenues in billions of dollars was forced to re-think its overall strategy and viability, because of what water meant to illiterate but determined farmers in the village. If you are unfamiliar with the plachimada case, more information is available here and here. Thanks to this emblematic case, today Coke takes great pains globally to demonstrate in reality and in PR, care of the local ecosystem and protection of the watershed, ie – the source of water at each of its plants. See the website for more information. But before we dismiss this as an isolated company trying to garner PR brownies, let’s stop and understand this further. Water has made its way to corporate boardrooms where there are active discussions on the physical risk of the non-availability of water in the company’s operations/ supply chain. ‘No water, no barley, no beer’ is a pithy slogan but it contains more than a grain of truth in it and it could be similarly applied to several industries. As seen from the Coke case, the risk to a company’s reputation, regulatory and financial risk with regard to water are also factors that cannot be ignored any longer. Even the guru of savvy investing Warren Buffet seems to have noticed the changing waterscape. According to this article, in 2009 his company ‘Berkshire Hathaway, became the largest shareholder in Nalco, a water-services, treatment, and equipment company that has no public profile but 12,000 employees and nearly $4 billion in revenue’. Water business is slowly but surely becoming big business…a market as big as $400-billion-a-year.
Speaking in general terms however, there are several examples of the disastrous consequences of taking water for granted. One that is commonly known in academic discourse but is not as well known in popular circles is that of the Aral Sea. These are images of what confronts us today in a region that once used to be known as the Aral Sea. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)
Aral Sea from space, August 1985
Aral Sea from space, 1997
Aral Sea from space, August 2009
Simply put, this is largely attributed to the mismanagement of the region in pursuit of the cultivation of a very thirsty crop – Cotton. 11,000 litres of water are required for a yield of one kg of cotton. Needless to say, a very thirsty crop in an arid region is a recipe for disaster. Merely reading what wikipedia has to say about the impact of this degradation on the environment, the economy and public health is enough to confound even the most indifferent person. All this could have been totally avoided. But that direction of thought is stuff of mere fantasy right now. Reality demands that we take heed of this example and act wisely to avoid similar situations in other regions of the world because the story of the Aral Sea is probably being repeated in several parts of world, especially in the developing world. Retail stores in developed economies offer fantastic discounts on ‘branded garments’, most of which are manufactured in the developing world. China and India are the world’s top two producers of cotton. Need I say more?