Thursday, 29 April 2010 15:18

Eco-challenge: Cut Your Water Consumption

Written by Dave
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Pier Faucet by jarnott on flickr!Living in a country like Belgium, the idea that water is a scarce resource can be hard to swallow; scarce things donít fall from the sky every other day. But globally, the situation is quite different:

  • Only 3 percent of the Earthís water is freshwater, and at least two thirds of that is held beyond human use in glaciers, ice caps, permafrost, or deep underground wells.
  • That last 1 percent? Itís not evenly distributed. In 2006, one billion people (one sixth of the worldís population) were living on less than the bare minimum of four liters of water a day needed for survival.
  • For the future, the situation only looks more precarious. Rising population means more pressure on existing resources, while global warming may put much of the freshwater supply at risk of disappearing, both from melting ice caps and glaciers and from decreased rainfall in much of the world.

With this in mind, itís clear that water needs to be used as conscientiously and efficiently as possible (hydrologists estimate that up to 60 percent of water taken from aquifers for human use is wasted by leaks, evaporation, carelessness, or inefficiency), and to that end, here are some clear steps you can take to minimize your water consumption:

Around the house

Take showers, not baths; make sure there are no drips from any faucets or pipes; try and get water efficient toilets, showers, and appliances; and never let the faucet run while youíre not using it. For the more motivated: why not even install a rainwater collection system on your house so that you can minimize the pressure you put on sanitation and purification plants and eliminate the runoff which would otherwise collect chemicals on the road and flush pollutants into the sewers and streams? There is no reason we all need to flush our toilets and water our lawns with drinkable water, and a rainwater collection system can save both pollution, overconsumption, and money!

At the store

Ninety percent of freshwater use comes from agriculture and industry, so you can have a far greater impact on your water consumption by looking closely at the food you eat and the products you buy.

With regards to food

try to eat less meat and animal products. A hamburger represents over 3,000 liters of water; 500 grams of cheddar cheese represents over 2,400 liters of water. A vegetarian diet requires 2,000 liters of water daily, while a high-calorie, grain-fed meat diet requires 5,000 liters daily. But also, this relates to the non-food products we buy. On the clothing front, over 2,500 liters of water are needed to grow enough cotton to make a t-shirt; the diverting of freshwater to grow cotton was the chief factor behind the draining of the Aral Sea (once the fourth largest freshwater body in the world) Ė widely considered one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time.

Make sure then that you buy responsibly

that you donít over-consume, buying products you donít need; but also that whenever possible you buy products which come from regions of the world where freshwater isnít scarce; or products made from alternative materials like bamboo or synthetics or wool, which consume significantly less water. And of course, whenever possible, be sure to purchase organic products that havenít left a chemical stain on the streams and rivers (and oceans!) of the world.

At the faucet

Whenever you have thechance, use tap water instead of bottled water! It is unequivocally better for the environment and for your health.

First, the environment

the Earth Policy Institute estimates that bottled water pollutes 10,000 times more than the same volume of tap water. That includes the manufacture
of the plastic bottles, the fossil fuels used in manufacture and transportation, the disposal problems after the water is consumed, and the damage on our limited freshwater resources by bottled water companies that pump huge amounts of water from often already sensitive aquifers.

On the health front

the idea that bottled water is more healthy is a marketing myth! The reality is that there is far more government control over quality in tap water than bottled water, which means that with the exception of instances where disasters have compromised the public water supply, the water coming out of the tap is much cleaner.

A 1999 study by the US National Resource Defense Council found that one third of bottled water tested (from 103 brands) contained carcinogens and even arsenic! Numerous other studies have shown that even when minerals and salts are added to bottled water, they have no positive health impact, and tap water is still better for you.

The main trait which bottled water has going for it in the end is taste Ė but that can easily be duplicated at home with a good reverse osmosis water filter. And even with the cost of the filter, using your own water will save you big! Tap water comes at a cost of just a few cents a day! Letís see Evian match that!

So yes, living in a wet part of the world it can be difficult to feel like water scarcity problems are pressing, but one last number should illustrate just how much of an impact our consumption can have. According to the study Globalization of Water, 80 percent of the water consumed by the average resident of Belgium (that includes in the production of our clothing, our food, our building materials, etc.) is imported from outside the country.

Eighty percent. Even in the wet parts of the world then, water is definitely a scarce resource.

Thirsty for more information? Most of the numbers in this article come from the book 'Water Supply,' edited by Richard Stein (H. W. Wilson Press, 2008). More information is also available online: is a great place to start.

This article was originally published in the July 2009 edition of the Sunbeams newsletter.

Last modified on Wednesday, 07 December 2011 10:51
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