Waste not, want not
It is easy to remember to turn off a tap. But have you ever stopped to think about the volume of water it takes to produce the food you eat, the clothes you wear, or the car your family drives? Most of the water you use is in this virtual footprint, and with climate change threatening one of our most precious, yet finite resources, the time has come to take action to stem the flow.
Scientists have growing proof of the link between climate change and pressure on water supply. It works in two ways: global warming upsets rainfall patterns, bringing storms and droughts and increasing the demand for freshwater. At the same time, the energy required to purify and distribute water boosts the greenhouse gas output that accelerates climate change. And as temperatures rise, the problem will get worse.
Saving water is not just about what we drink or wash with. Besides public water supply, industry, farming and tourism are major users. But the highest proportion of all – getting on for half – goes to generate energy. In the EU it works out at: 44% for energy production; 24% for agriculture; 17% for public water supply; 15% for industry.
The Water Footprint website, run by the University of Twente in the Netherlands and the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, offers some interesting statistics:
- It takes 15,500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of beef.
- It takes 140 litres of water to make one cup of coffee.
- It takes 900 litres of water to grow 1 kilogram of maize.
To calculate your own personal water footprint, go to the online calculator and check out how you measure up.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently turned its attention to water, and found “abundant evidence” that freshwater sources are vulnerable to climate change, “with wide-ranging consequences on human societies and ecosystems”.
In 2007, the European Commission published a Communication on drought, revealing that:
- Over the past 30 years, droughts have dramatically increased in number and intensity in the EU.
- The number of areas and people affected by droughts went up by almost 20% between 1976 and 2006.
- One of the most widespread droughts occurred in 2003 when over 100 million people and a third of the EU territory were affected.
- The cost of the damage to the European economy was at least €8.7 billion. The total cost of droughts over the past 30 years amounts to €100 billion.
At the same time, at least 11% of the European population and 17% of its territory have suffered from water scarcity (when resources run short), and the trend is growing as climate change accelerates.
But it is not just about drought. Heavy rainfall and flooding damage water distribution and sewage systems and pollute supplies. The IPCC points out that extreme weather events such as storms and floods are growing in frequency and magnitude. Even a small increase in temperature will cause the situation to deteriorate further, and the higher the rise in temperature, the worse the effect will be. The consequences are hard to predict.
Water resources are stored in glaciers and snow cover, but these are melting. Climate change also increases the water vapour content in the air, altering rainfall patterns. Baked-hard soil cannot absorb rainwater, leading to greater ‘run-off’ as precious freshwater flows into the sea. Scientists admit that the gap in knowledge related to the specific impacts of global warming on water resources is one of the greatest challenges they face.
How climate change is hitting the glaciers
A 40-month study by scientists from America and China warned of an ecological catastrophe in Tibet because of global warming, and concluded that most glaciers in the region could melt away by 2100. While Tibet’s glaciers have been receding for the past four decades, the rate of decline has increased dramatically since the early 1990s.
It was initially thought that the water from the melting glaciers could provide additional water for China’s arid north and west. But this hope has been dashed because much of the glacier run-off evaporates long before it reaches the country’s drought-stricken farmers. The human cost could be immense, as 300 million Chinese live in these regions and depend on the water flowing from the glaciers for their livelihoods.
Source: Agence France Presse
But there is a lot we can do. New research on EU Water Saving Potential shows that the amount of water used in Europe could be cut by up to 40%, through new technologies to save water in industry and manufacturing, better irrigation techniques – and avoiding waste at home. The report estimates that personal water use could be reduced by almost 50%, from an average 150 litres to 80 litres per day.
The independent European Water Partnership was set up in 2006. With partner organisations ranging from environmental NGOs to Coca-Cola, it has launched an Aquawareness campaign and is looking for innovative answers to the challenges. “We are ‘the voice of water’,” says Vice-Chairman Fritz Barth. He points out that modern equipment offers many water-saving opportunities, but it is down to consumers to know how to use them, so more information and transparency is urgently needed. His family of four uses just 180 litres of water per day at home in Germany. “We harvest rainwater and use it for flushing the toilet, watering the garden and washing clothes. And we save money.”
Adopting ‘life cycle’ thinking when it comes to the products we buy means being aware of the total amount of water used in their manufacture, usage and disposal. In July, the Commission announced plans to extend ‘ecodesign’ legislation to water supply equipment such as taps and shower-heads, further encouraging manufacturers to develop new techniques to save water and energy.
Water is vital to life, and yet according to the United Nations some 1 billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water, 2.4 billion do not have adequate sanitation, and 2.2 million die from diseases linked to poor water supply. In 2002, Europe launched its EU Water Initiative (EUWI) to help achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people worldwide without safe water supply. Water is a global resource, and it is time it was shared out fairly.
According to Professor Sarah Slaughter of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), unless we find innovative ways to make the most of water, it will become ‘the next oil’. The difference is that while people do not need to drive to survive, they do need to drink. We must recognise the true value of our liquid assets.
Country by country
The water footprint of a nation shows the total volume of water used to produce the goods and services consumed by the inhabitants of that nation. Since not all goods consumed are produced within that country, the water footprint takes account of both domestic water resources and use of water outside its borders.
- Not surprisingly, in Europe, the warmer countries in the south have a larger water footprint per capita than in the cooler north, because the figure includes irrigation and agriculture as well as industry. Top of the league is Greece, which consumes 2,389 m3 of water per person per year. Latvia uses a mere 684 m3 per person per year.
- But when you exclude industry and agriculture, Sweden is the country with the highest consumption (121 m3 per person per year), while the Netherlands uses least (28 m3 per person per year).
- The water footprint of China is about 700 m3 per person per year, but only about 7% of the Chinese water footprint falls outside China.
- Japan, by contrast, with a footprint of 1,150 m3 per person per year, has about 65% of its total water footprint outside the borders of the country.
- The USA water footprint is 2,500 m3 per person per year.
What can you do?
Save water around the house:
- About one third of the water we use at home goes down the toilet, literally. Try flushing less often, use the short flush whenever possible, and reduce the capacity of your toilet cistern.
- Collect rainwater, to use in the garden or for washing the car. This can save up to 50% of household water.
- Take showers rather than baths, and cut short your time under the running water.
- Do not leave the tap running when brushing your teeth or cleaning dishes.
- Spray taps on hand basins save up to 80% of water.
- When you boil the kettle, put in the amount of water you need – do not fill it up each time.
- Check your taps and pipes for drips and leaks.
- When clothes are not too dirty, use the economy cycle on the washing machine.
- Reuse wastewater from sinks and baths, and you could save up to 18,000 litres of water a year.
- If you live in a drier country, choose garden plants that suit the climate and need less watering.
Make wise choices when you buy:
- Choose eco-label products, which are guaranteed to have less impact on the environment.
- Adjust your diet to avoid foods that take a lot of water and energy to produce or transport, such as meat and processed meals.
- Use bottled water sparingly: in Europe tap water is safe to drink, and you can fit a filter to purify it. Bottled water consumes energy in production, marketing, and recycling the plastic bottles.
- Choose hotels and destinations that apply environmental criteria (limiting water and energy consumption and reducing waste).
- Reduce hotel laundry by reusing towels and sheets.