The precious commodity we take for granted

water pouchHow much water do you eat? That was the oddly compelling title of a Ted-style 15-minute talk by Jane Withers at the inaugural IQ2 “If” conference  at the Royal Geographical Society in London on Friday.

The self-styled aquaholic is on a one-woman mission to raise awareness about water consumption and fully expects that in the future there will be a Fairtrade label for it.

The big problem, as she sees it, is that we simply don’t value water – and in her words that has to change.

She cited figures to show that much of the water we “consume” is hidden. In the UK, the average person uses 150 litres a day for domestic purposes. But that rises to more than 4,600 litres a day if you add in the total water footprint.

How does she arrive at that number? By factoring in the water used in the products and services we buy . So, for example, a menu choice of Peking Duck has a hidden footprint of 7,000 litres of water which comes mainly from the feed on which the duck is fattened.

Kenyan green beans which are often found on the shelves of British supermarkets carry more than just an air miles consideration. In Withers’ view we’ve outsourced our water footprint to countries with scarce supplies and she thinks it’s important that we know whose water we’re using and for what.

Inevitably, she believes, we’ll end up paying more for water intensive products.

In an earlier session, the manager of Shell’s global strategy team, Adam Newton, talked about how production of a kilo of beef used more than 15,000 litres of water, and a single cup of coffee 140 litres.

Newton also stated that some areas of the Middle East were using up to 65% of domestic oil production to desalinate water.

Did you know, for instance, that the world’s largest dairy farm is in Saudi Arabia? The kingdom has 29,000-strong herd of cows producing 100,000 gallons of milk per day – and that takes an awful lot of water.

Why should anyone care? Why does all this matter? Because, as Newton pointed out, the equivalent of six new Londons were being created every year and demand for water can only go up.

Withers’ 1% Water blog makes the point that 70% of the Earth’s surface is water but only 3% is freshwater and only 1% is available to us.

Incidentally, the image used to illustrate this post is a pouch by Olivia Decaris a London-based, French designer and illustrator.

It attempts to make the point that if you had to ‘milk’ your tap to get water rather than let it gush freely you might be inclined to use it more sparingly.


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