How Big is Your Water Footprint?

Who knows their water footprint?
You know about your carbon footprint, that it looks at the impact of your day-to-day life on the environment by measuring the greenhouse gases produced as a result of your activities. Your water footprint takes the same kind of look at water usage.

The water footprint concept just hasn’t gotten the same kind of attention. Maybe it’s because fresh water is so commonplace and ubiquitous, at least in the developed parts of the world, that it’s easy to forget what an incredibly valuable resource it is. But we can’t afford to forget. Here in the U.S., where water is generally plentiful and well-managed, water managers in 36 states anticipate periodic water shortages over the next 3 years.

Americans are the water hogs of the planet.
That should come as no surprise, given our resource track record. It takes 1,800 gallons of water a day to keep each of us afloat, the vast majority going toward the production of the food we eat. On average, each of us uses water at twice the world-wide rate. Typical usage in China is less than 500 gallons a day per person, and even much of Europe uses less than 1000 gallons a day per person.

When you drink a 12 ounce cup of coffee in the morning, you’re actually gulping down 37 gallons of water when you account for the growing, processing, and transportation of  the coffee beans before they even got to the local roaster. A glass of wine at the end of the day? It takes 57 gallons of water to produce just 8 ounces of chardonnay.

The worst culprit of all is beef. Dairy products, poultry, pork—they’re all heavyweights—but nothing guzzles water like an industrially-raised, grain-fed cow. It takes more than 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, mostly due to the ton of grain the cow has eaten by the time it gets to market.

Of course it is not simply the amount of water that’s used, but where the water is located. It takes about 500 gallons of water to produce a single bag of peanut M&Ms, and only 50 gallons to produce a jar of spaghetti sauce. The cocoa and peanuts are grown in temperate zones with high rainfalls, while tomatoes need heavy irrigation to grown in their typically warm and dry climates. This makes the pasta sauce much more likely to contribute to water scarcity.

Know your water footprint. National Geographic has an online calculator that tallies your personal usage based on home, garden, diet, and energy practices.

At Water, you can explore a water footprint database of 132 countries, and a footprint gallery of food products.



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4 Responses to How Big is Your Water Footprint?

  1. G Martin says:

    Interesting post. However in some instances water can be reclaimed. For instance sewer water can be treated and used for agriculture. What about desalinization? From what I hear the cost of that is going down. We human beings are smart enough to put men on the moon. Surely, on a planet that is 75% water, someone can come up with a solution.

  2. I admit that I take a longer shower than I should, but otherwise, I’m so very careful with water usage. I even drive my husband crazy because I don’t rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. I tell him if one ends up with stuff on it, I’ll wash it afterwards. Why waste water rinsing when the dishwasher’s supposed to do that.

  3. Janice says:

    You are correct. And those differences also affect how different cultures value the resource of water. As someone who lived through west coast water rationing in the 1990s, I am sensitive to how oblivious easterners are to water conservation. I can only imagine the gulf between residents of the examples you cited.

  4. Peter Williams says:

    In fact it isn’t just the amount and location of water usage. How much of that usage is fully consumptive (where the water is lost to the area for good) and how much is temporary (for example, irrigation water that runs off the plant and soaks back into the ground)? Even more importantly, perhaps – what is placed back into environmental water resources by way of discharge, and what nasties are in that discharge?

    In fact not all water usage is equal – a million gallons a day taken out of the Amazon, say, probably has less impact than a million gallons out of the Niger in sub-saharan Africa.

    For all these reasons, the concept of water foot-printing is even harder to capture meaningfully than carbon foot-printing. I am not saying we shouldn’t do it, but for a while when we see water footprint statistics it will be a case of caveat emptor, until standards emerge.

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