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The hidden cost of water

Shirt with caption for WWF Action

Robin Clegg learns the shocking truth about his water consumption

Where does our water come from?
I turn the tap off when I brush my teeth. I have a water meter in my home and a water butt in the garden – together that saves 10% of my household consumption. As far as UK water consumption goes, I like to think I do my bit to use less. The only trouble is 62% of the water I consume comes from overseas.

In the UK, we have a much bigger water footprint than people in developing countries. This water, used to grow and make products overseas for the British market, is known as embedded or virtual water – and most of us have no idea how many litres we use.

The hidden cost of our daily routine
I had a cup of coffee on the way to work: 140 litres of water were needed for that single cup. The A4 sheet of paper I wrote my shopping list on needs 10 litres. And if I feel like a steak in the evening – well, to produce just one kilo of beef requires 15,500 litres once you’ve taken into account the grain the cow eats (8,500kg) and water it drinks (24 cubic metres) over a lifespan of three years. The glass of beer to wash it down took another 75 litres.

That’s food. What about my clothes? I bought a new shirt for a friend’s wedding. It takes 2,700 litres of water to produce the average cotton shirt. Suddenly, I see that shirt in a different light.

And consider this irony. Some of the world’s driest countries are exporting water in the form of goods to places that are a lot wetter – such as the cotton from Pakistan that ends up as items of clothing in our shops. There are huge inequalities in the developed world too. Oranges produced in drought-stricken Australia use three times more water than those grown in the US.

Economy vs. environment?
The needs of economies and environments are clashing. We import a huge amount of cotton and rice from Pakistan, yet it recently experienced its lowest water availability on record.

A lack of water in the Indus River – the lifeline for Pakistan’s largely agriculture-based economy – is one of the major factors contributing to a decline of the endangered Indus river dolphin and is also damaging the mangrove forests of the Indus Delta.

In Barcelona, recent water shortages sparked a national debate about poor planning. In April this year, a tanker arrived from France with 36 million litres of drinking water for the Spanish city’s citizens.
Businesses are realising that they have a role to play in managing issues of water consumption. Swiss Re, one of the world’s leading global reinsurers, describes the global unavailability of water as the “one big risk” emerging in the future.

Meanwhile the bottled water company Vittel, has been forced to purchase US$9m worth of land and has paid land owners an additional US$24.5m in subsidies to protect the supply of clean water to its bottling plants.

Rice field

WWF is working with rice farmers to explore ways in which they can use less water while still getting the same, if not higher, yields from their crops

Working with business
Stuart Orr, a water footprint expert for WWF-UK, meets with companies to discuss ways they can play a positive role in influencing better water resource management.

“We want to challenge businesses to consider their water footprint and explore other ways in which they can positively evaluate and reduce their impacts,” says Orr. “Also, we seek to challenge government to pass laws that address water use in the UK, EU and overseas where we have a dependence on other countries’ often fragile water systems.”

Overseas, WWF has identified specific water-scarce regions, and crops within them, that require new management techniques to reduce the amount of water they need to grow. In India and Pakistan, WWF is working with farmers who grow cotton, rice and sugar cane – so-called thirsty crops – as part of the Better Cotton Initiative. The aim is to explore ways in which farmers can use less water while still getting the same, if not higher, yields from their crops by using innovative farming methods.

Running dry
Many of the world’s major rivers are already being chronically damaged by over-abstraction, and some have even run completely dry. Climate change and rising demand on our water resources will only worsen the situation. But if we do nothing to alleviate the acute pressures on water resources at home and abroad then our inaction could have far reaching consequences for people and habitats.

You can...

  • Try reducing household water use and food wastage. This will reduce both your virtual and direct consumption.
  • Work out your own water footprint by using an online calculator to track the water you use.
  • Reduce the amount of highly water-intensive produce in your diet.
  • Ask your local supermarket what it is doing to address the impact of its water footprint.
  • Urge your MP to push the government to make household water bills reflect the amount of water that we actually use. The UK is almost alone among European nations in not having universal water metering. It also introduces a financial incentive to save water.


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Cotton denim jeans

A staggering volume of water is used to produce the goods we take for granted. A single pair of jeans, for example, requires about 11,000 litres.

Some UK water facts:

  • There has been a 1% annual rise in our water consumption in the UK every year for the last 30 years.
  • The UK is now the sixth largest net importer of water in the world.
  • Out of our total water footprint, just 38% is derived from the UK while the rest comes from abroad