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Saving water starts with food

Our personal hygiene and the water we drink only have a minor impact on our general consumption. Food production is what really weighs heavily on our water balance. Rather than looking at what’s in our glasses, we should focus on what’s on our plates.

Four hundred and twenty-five litres of water a day: according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), this is how much water an American citizen needs every day. However, again according to data from the WHO, in Madagascar each person uses 10 litres of water a day. In richer countries, the average consumption is estimated at about 300 litres a day. According to the OECD, our need for water will increase by 55% by 2050 and already in 2025 about two thirds of the world’s population could be suffering from water stress.

Water is the oil of tomorrow: its demand is growing around the world, while its availability is shrinking and subsequently increasing economic, social (since situations of water poverty are occurring that prevent people’s living conditions from improving) and political costs (with tensions and actual wars over the control of water sources).


Pollution and global warming

Pollution is among the main causes of reduced availability since it threatens the quality of water resources, partly due to the growing prosperity among ever larger sections of the population: 70% of industrial waste is emptied into waterways before undergoing any purification treatment. Another factor is the effect of global warming, which reduces rainfall or causes deluges, such as during typhoons and hurricanes, and subsequently contributes to soil erosion and the desertification of vast areas of the planet.

While we can survive without oil since we know how to produce energy from other sources, without water there is no life on the planet.


Uneven distribution

Similarly to oil, water is also not evenly distributed: 64% of the world’s water resources are found in just 13 countries. The number of countries with an annual availability per capita below 1,000 cubic metres is increasing year by year. This is the “poverty threshold” for water, below which we cannot meet our own personal needs but also industrial and agricultural demand.

Turning off the tap when we’re brushing our teeth or spending less time in the shower are all well and good but they only have a marginal impact on our overall water consumption, since it is agriculture that guzzles 70% of our available fresh water resources. This is followed by industries with 22%. Household use “only” accounts for 8% and that is just in developed countries. In poorer countries, or with water shortages, 95% of consumption goes on food production. According to the United Nations (UN), one person in six around the world does not have access to the 20-50 litres of fresh water deemed necessary for personal hygiene.


Hidden consumption

“What we put on our plates has a major impact on the quantity of water used: if we drink about two litres of water every day, we “consume”, albeit indirectly, about 5,000 litres to produce our food”, explains Tony Allan, a geographer and professor emeritus of King’s College London. He came up with the concept of “virtual water” to indicate the amount of water we consume without fully realising it. “We human beings don’t understand the true value of water, and we are at a point in our relationship with nature’s vast but limited water resources where we simply cannot afford to stay ignorant”.

How can we reduce our virtual water consumption? We should learn about how the food we choose is produced. In fact, there are water-saving production methods out there and food choices that use less water. An example? A kilo of meat from intensively reared cattle requires five times more water than a kilo of meat from grazing livestock. While a kilo of potatoes only requires 186 litres of water. The following infographics show the water consumption required to produce different foods and certain consumer goods.

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