Freshwater and our water footprint aren’t topics we think about much, right? Generally, in the US and other western countries, we just open the faucet, and out comes clean, cool, and refreshing freshwater. Freshwater is essential for life — all plants, animals, and humans need freshwater to survive. But water is a precious resource, and each of us can promote the transition toward sustainable, fair, and equitable use of freshwater. It starts with being conscious of our own water footprints.
Approximately 70% of the earth is covered with water, but only 2.5% of it is usable freshwater. And only 1% of the earth’s water is able to be extracted for treatment. The rest of it is frozen inside of glaciers and snowfields. Surface water and groundwater are the primary sources for freshwater extraction.
Freshwater is used in a variety of ways. Our human uses for freshwater include for drinking, to irrigate crops, as part of sanitation systems, and in manufacturing. We need to drink to stay alive; for consumer goods, plastics, and food; and to create power.
The US Dominates Freshwater Use Among Comparable Countries
A new 2018 infographic from High Tide Technologies helps us to understand the importance of freshwater and how integral it is to our human processes. Agricultural irrigation alone accounts for 38% of all freshwater usage. Thermo-electric power generation also comprises 38% of freshwater use. but it is typically returned to the water supply — making it far more sustainable.
Each of us must learn to preserve and conserve this precious resource of freshwater. Water conservation means using our water supply wisely and caring for it properly. Since each of us depends on water to sustain life, it is our responsibility to learn more about water conservation and how we can help keep our sources pure and safe for generations to come. If we fail to conserve water, it may eventually lead to a lack of an adequate, healthy water supply.
Water is life.
What is a Water Footprint?
The water footprint is a measure of humanity’s appropriation of fresh water in volumes of water consumed and/or polluted. After thousands of years of civilization, many of us no longer need to dwell near freshwater sources to experience the benefits. Advances in technology have drastically changed the means of water collection, treatment, and distribution. The water footprint is a measurement of the volume of water consumed (evaporated or otherwise not returned) or assimilation capacity used.
The water footprint:
- Is geographically and temporally explicit
- Is an indicator of water use that looks at both direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer
- Can be calculated for a process, a product, a consumer, group of consumers (such as a municipality, province, state, or nation) or a producer (like private enterprise or public organizations)
Do you know your water footprint? Calculate it here.
How Do Surface Water and Groundwater Differ?
Surface water resources — the water in a nation’s rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, and reservoirs—are vitally important to everyday life. The main uses of surface water include drinking water and other public uses, irrigation uses, mining, industrial purposes, and for use by the thermoelectric-power industry to cool electricity generating equipment.
Groundwater is an important part of the water cycle. Precipitation seeps down through the soil until it reaches rock material that is saturated with water, then it is stored in the spaces between these rock particles. Groundwater slowly moves underground, generally at a downward angle due to gravity and may eventually seep into streams, lakes, and oceans.
Zooming in on US Water Usage
Each day, people in the US use significantly more water than people in similarly developed countries. For example, the average person in the US uses 4x more freshwater everyday than the average German. While a portion of this discrepancy is owed to the widespread geography of the US, that alone doesn’t account for the difference. Canada, another sprawling nation, manages to use 40% less water per capita on a daily basis.
There is a pressing need to reduce the collective water footprint for long-term sustainability.
“Americans use 125 gallons per capita per day, while Germans only use 31.96. Canada, another sprawling nation, manages to use 40% less freshwater per capita on a daily basis, at only 81 gallons. In comparison, Great Britain and France use 39 and 43.3 gallons per capita per day, respectively.”
People in the US underestimate their water use by a factor of 2 and are only slightly aware of how much water goes into growing the food they eat, according to researcher Shahzeen Attari. In Attari’s study, when asked what is the most effective action they can take to decrease their water use, participants stated curtailment actions rather than efficiency actions, possibly because of the upfront monetary costs involved with efficiency actions. Participants systematically underestimated the water used by standard appliances and fixtures, and the study as a whole pointed to a problematic US psychology of consumption.
(Yes, it must be said that sometimes the US water usage totals drop annually when compared to previous years. In 2015, for example, that happened due to significant decreases in withdrawals for thermoelectric power (28.8 Bgal/d), which accounted for 89% of the decrease in total withdrawals. Or US public supply, irrigation, and mining withdrawals can vary, which account for some occasional variations.)
How Can We Assess Our Collective Water Footprints?
It took ingenuity, money, and cooperation to establish our current freshwater distribution network. This complex process conveniently brings freshwater to homes and industries across the country – cleaning, feeding, and powering a nation. But convenience can make us complacent.
Here are some ways for municipalities to assess their collective water footprints:
- Understand the geographic and temporal allocation of water resources for industry, agriculture, and domestic water supply
- Assess the sustainability, efficiency, and equitability of water use — consumption and pollution
- Identify the most strategic actions to be taken in local, regional, national, and global scales — individually and collectively
Establishing sustainability criteria across multiple domains makes water usage much more transparent. Environmental flow requirements, groundwater level, and ambient water quality standards are important sustainability criteria.
So, too, are recognizing today’s basic human needs – drinking water, food security, and employment, for example. Rules of fairness must come into play so that equitable freshwater allocation as well as a “polluter pays principle” become common practice.
And, of course, in order for freshwater to be accessible for all, efficient economic allocations must be considered as part of the overall equation of the value of water.
Freshwater is vital to human survival. Our ancestors had the keen awareness that it was strategically advantageous to settle near rivers. This understanding drove the transition from tribes of early hunter-gatherers into civilization as we know it. Along with being a consistent source of drinkable water, rivers provide fertile land for hunting, fishing, agriculture, and transportation.
With our attention more divided than ever, it’s easy to push impending problems to the side. Our current rate of consumption is not sustainable, and there is an increasing need to reduce our collective water footprint. Solving the riddle of sustainable water usage will require awareness, education, and bold solutions. As in the case with our early ancestors, it will take a concerted effort. Our survival depends on it.
“As environmental factors shift, it is more important than ever to conserve freshwater. Climate change continues to deplete our resources, while demand for those resources increases. It’s important for Americans to be educated and conscious about their water usage. The most at-risk sector of our current water consumption is agriculture. As climate change occurs and conditions become less predictable, we’ll likely have to use more water to produce the food we eat. Beyond usage alone, changes to where our water comes from and the condition of that water will affect what, when and how we grow crops. Americans consume substantially more water than other countries, and we have to find ways to conserve water to help fight this global issue.” – Paul Balsom, Director of Marketing & Sales at High Tide Technologies.
Infographics courtesy High Tide Technologies