On average, Belgians use around 100 litres of tap water a day. Our consumption habits, however, require much more water, namely an average of 7,400 litres of water per person on a daily basis. This is because we do not only consume water 'directly' for drinking, cooking and washing, but also 'indirectly', in order to produce all the goods and services we consume.
A sheet of paper requires 2 to 13 litres of water. 176 litres of water are needed in the cultivation and production process for one cup of coffee. To grow and process the cotton for one pair of jeans, 8,000 litres of water are needed. For 100 grams of beef, about 1,500 litres are required, mainly to produce the cow's food.
Direct and indirect water use
In order to have an idea of how much water is needed for a certain product or service over the entire production chain, Professor A. Y. Hoekstra of the University of Twente in the Netherlands developed 'the water footprint'.
A person's water footprint is the amount of water he or she uses both directly and indirectly. Direct water includes tap water, ground water and rain water a person uses, whereas indirect water is the water required for all the products and services this person uses: food, paper, energy, clothing, transport. The method also makes it possible to calculate the water footprint of a school, municipality or country.
Freshwater supply under pressure
Worldwide, we have a constant volume of fresh water available. We must, however, share this volume with more and more people. Whereas the world population amounted to 1 billion people in 1800, this number had risen to 3 billion by 1960. Last year, statistics showed our planet currently hosts 7.5 billion people. In addition, we are consuming more and more. At the same time, people are being increasingly confronted with extreme drought and flooding as a result of the more extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change. All this is putting pressure on the world's freshwater resources. If we were to distribute all fresh water fairly, everyone would have some 5,500 litres of water available per day. That volume is called the 'fair share of water'.
In addition, we are consuming more and more. At the same time, people are being increasingly confronted with extreme drought and flooding as a result of the more extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change.
Import of water
The available water is not evenly distributed though. In Belgium, for instance, we import 75 percent of the water we use. In other words, we heavily rely on other countries. Many of the goods we consume are produced in developing countries that already suffer from water scarcity: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Somalia, Djibouti, Cameroon.
Our current consumption pattern has an immense impact on the (often already low) availability of water in developing countries. In the short term, the export of water provides these countries with a new source of income, but when so much water is used that lakes, rivers and aquifers dry out, one might question the sustainability of such practices. For example, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, once the fourth largest lake in the world, has almost completely disappeared. The river water that was supposed to feed the lake was used for irrigating the surrounding cotton fields, which led to a disturbed ecosystem as a smaller lake means less evaporation, fewer clouds and less rain.
As you see, water is a very complex story with a global impact. Responsibilities not only lie with governments and companies, but also with ourselves as consumers. If we want to use water in a sustainable way and respect the ‘fair share of water’, we must reduce our water footprint by 30 percent.
If we want to use water in a sustainable way and respect the ‘fair share of water’, we must reduce our water footprint by 30 percent.
Tips on how to reduce your water footprint
• Consume less
• Recycle used goods
• Opt for a plant-based diet and eat less meat
• Do not waste food
• Choose organic food
• Choose local and seasonal products
• Choose alternatives for cotton, such as hemp, bamboo and viscose
• Choose solar or wind energy
• Avoid using tap water and replace it with rain water where possible.
• Limit water pollution
o Choose biodegradable products
o Avoid plastic packaging
o Do not use pesticides
o Bring products containing harmful substances to the recycling centre.
More information on the water footprint?
www.protos.ngo/nl/de-watervoetafdruk (only available in Dutch)