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5 Lessons for the Future of Water

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Leon, Spain's main reservoir barely reaches 10% on September 1, 2017 during the country's worst drought in 20 years. Alvaro Fuente / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Chiara Cecchini

Although it is difficult today to divert attention from the dramatic situation we live in, it is even more important to get closer to our primary needs. Recently, we celebrated World Water Day, and the timing couldn't have been more appropriate to give to all of us the chance to rethink priorities and draw some lessons.


Without water, our lifespan would be 14 days. Our entire existence is closely dependent on one single, exhaustible resource. In a moment where we all feel vulnerable, and surprisingly dependent on more external systems than we imagined, life is reminding us of what makes us human, and where we should probably focus our attention.

Looking at the numbers, desertification is on the increase everywhere in the world. In Europe it already affects 8% of the territory; in Africa, almost 70% of the continent is arid or semi-arid land; and in North America about 40% of the continental land is at risk of desertification. Data shows that this scenario is destined to get even worse, with forecasts saying that 47% of the world population is going to experience water scarcity by 2030.

But where do we consume all this water?

Only 2.5% of the water on Earth is fresh and only 0.1% of it is accessible to humans, while every human being needs it to survive. This explains the reason why in 2010 the UN officially recognized access to safe drinking water as a basic and universal human right, as well as including water among the Sustainable Development Goals.

Global water use has increased by a factor of six over the past 100 years. The majority of it (up to 70%) goes into irrigation of crops that eventually feed us, the animals that we eat, or the clothes we wear. The remaining 30% is consumed by the industry and for domestic use.

While the majority of the available water goes to produce human food, the water impacts of individual products vary considerably. 214 liters of water are needed to produce one kg of tomatoes, 2,500l for a kg of rice, 3,180l for a kg of cheese, and 15,400l for a kg of beef. It is then easy to understand the risks of price increases for food in contexts of water scarcity. As well as the power we have every time we do our grocery shopping. Do we know how much water we eat every single day?

The World Health Organization defines the concept of water scarcity based on the assumption that each person needs between 50 and 100 liters of water per day to meet their primary needs. We know that in most Western countries this percentage is abundantly exceeded.

The average American uses about 340 liters of water each day, and this is calculated as consumption at home only, without considering food consumed. Add to it your morning coffee (140 liters) a banana (80 litres), some grilled chicken (430 liters) and tomatoes (50 liters) for lunch, some cheese (200 liters), olives (200 liters) and a beer (150 liters) as aperitif, and some rice (250 liters) and broccoli (40 liters) for dinner. Your average daily water consumption has already jumped to 1,900 liters per day.

Not to mention current data on food waste. Every day in the United States, consumers throw out nearly a pound of food each, wasting both food and water. When we throw food away, we also throw away all the water and energy used to produce it.

What Can We Do About It?

Now that the whole world is experiencing the effects of a major disaster, we have the opportunity to re-evaluate some of our choices. COVID-19 has transformed everyday life so significantly that the effects are already visible from space, showing us that change is possible and results are tangible. COVID-19 is teaching us (among other things) that our eagerness for creation should not result in the destruction of our planet.

Here are five simple things we can all start doing to have a healthier relationship with water and our environment in the future.

1. Follow the food pyramid, which forms the basis of the Mediterranean diet.

Our weekly food intake should be mainly composed of fruit, vegetables and grains, with minor presence of animal-based proteins. It takes 31 mixed salads to make the water footprint of one burger.

2. Look at how food is produced.

Regenerative agriculture, permaculture and organic farming aim to improve the quality and productivity of soil so that it retains moisture, minimizing the need for excessive irrigation. Hydroponic, aquaponic, aeroponic and vertical farming make it possible to grow produce very efficiently.

3. Eat unprocessed food.

While the water footprint of whole foods is made up entirely of the water needed to grow, processed foods require additional water for cleaning, pre-cooking, and making packaging materials.

4. Reconsider where to live and shop.

As food and other products are traded, their water footprint follows them in the form of virtual water. Which means that every time you consume an imported product, you don't only increase its footprint by the water needed to take care of shipment, but you also take away water from its local population. Supporting your house, neighborhood and city to grow more food can have a hugely positive impact on your water footprint, as well as supporting existing local producers.

5. Think twice before buying new clothes.

It takes about 2,700 liters of water to make just one t-shirt, enough for one person to drink for 900 days. The average woman will own 372 cardigans and 558 pairs of trousers during her adult life. The fast-fashion industry is based on us buying items extremely often, but do we really need all of them?

In a moment where we feel caged, where we are scared of losing our loved ones, and we feel vulnerable in the middle of a pandemic that seems unstoppable, our ecosystem is presenting us with a challenge. It is everyone's personal responsibility whether to accept it or not. Are we able to preserve our main source of life?

Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.

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