Blog Action Day: Measuring Your Water Footprint

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson    

This is Blog Action Day. Thousands of bloggers are writing about water. This is but one essay. The rest are here.

When your water comes from a public water supply, it can be hard to remember what a treasure you have at your disposal. I grew to adulthood in what was then America’s third largest city. I never heard anyone talk about being thrifty in their use of water. I heard people complain about their water bills (there were meters, and the city billed twice a year) but nobody I knew, including me, drew an intimate connection between how much water they used and how big their bill was.

Where I grew up there were six of us to one bathroom, so hour-long showers weren’t possible. There was always someone banging on the door. But we washed dishes under running water, set sprinklers to water our little lawns (the house I grew up in was 12 feet wide and attached to 30 other houses, all in a row, each the same width) for hours in the summer sun.

Honestly. I’m not kidding. I didn’t even know what a dishpan was until I moved to the country. In Philadelphia in the 1950s, just as I thought that rubbish went away when the men came and emptied the trash cans we put out in back of our houses, I thought there would never be an end to water. I took what I was taught as a child about the water cycle (rain – evaporation – rain) literally.

Now, where I live a few houses in the village share a water line that comes down off Mount Grace, and the rest of us have wells. Some wells are deeper than others. The deeper ones are closer to being immune to running dry. One summer’s drought had our water pump sucking air, but the well didn’t quite go dry. We sank a pipe another 40 feet down and all was, ahem, well.

I don’t know anyone around here who is not aware that water is a finite resource. As for my husband and me, during the few drought-scare days we went through, we instituted water conservation measures that we’ve never abandoned.

For example, if we draw a glass of water to drink and don’t finish it, we empty it into the dog’s water dish. When I shower, I run the water long enough to get my body and the soap wet, turn off the water, soap up, turn it back on, rinse off and wet my hair, turn off the water, rub in the shampoo, turn the water back on, rinse my hair, and I’m done with the water. Total shower time, maybe five minutes. Total water-running time, one or two minutes. It’s such a habit that I do this even in spring, when the well is full to overflowing. It’s not a sacrifice. It just feels sensible.

There are other water conservation measures in the bathroom and kitchen that I know you can figure out for yourself.

None of this directly helps the nearly one billion people who lack access to clean water, leaving them vulnerable to disease and death.

It doesn’t directly help the women in rural Africa who collectively walk 40 billion hours a year, carrying as much as 40 pounds of water at a time, water which is often not safe to drink but is all that is available.

It doesn’t directly help the nearly 38,000 children under age 5 who die each week from lack of safe water and hygienic living conditions.

It doesn’t alleviate the pressure on nations in arid regions – Darfur, for example – who experts say, may find themselves fighting over water resources.

Around here where I live, where water is mostly clean and most of the time plentiful, thinking about how I save water makes me aware of my water footprint, and that’s what I’m after in this essay – getting you to think about yours, too.

You’re probably already aware that you have a carbon footprint, even if you haven’t calculated it. It’s a measure of how much carbon dioxide the way you live puts into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. You’ve probably reduced your carbon footprint by bunching up your errands, instead of hopping into the car every time you run out of popcorn. Maybe you bike to work. Maybe you walk more. Maybe you buy local produce as much as you can. You’ve read enough, you know enough, you care enough to be more sparing in your use of fossil fuels.

Your water footprint is not just how much water you use where you live and work. It’s how much water it takes to give you the things you eat, wear, and use. For example, it takes about 200 quarts of water to produce a glass of milk. This figure is calculated by adding up the water it takes to grow the grass for the cow that gives the milk, to water the cow, perhaps (I’m not sure, but I’d add it in if I were doing the figuring) to clean the barn – measuring the water for a whole herd, finding the average yield per cow, and so forth. The figures are careful estimates, because that’s the best that can be done.

Nobody’s saying you shouldn’t drink milk, or give it to your children. It’s an exercise in awareness, meant to remind you that you use water in places you’ve never been. Have you ever seen coffee growing? This morning’s cup of coffee took about 140 quarts of water to produce.

The people who brought you the water footprint have created a water footprint calculator where you can see how your practices compare with others.

Here you can discover the national water footprint of your country (or any other you choose to name). For example:

  • The United States has an average water footprint of 2,483 cubic meters per person per year. (2,483 cubic meters = 655,939 gallons) 19% of the US water footprint falls outside of the country.
  • Japan’s average water footprint is 1,153 cubic meters. 64% of its footprint falls outside the country.
  • China’s water footprint is 702 cubic meters. 7% of its footprint falls outside the country.
  • Ethiopia’s water footprint is 675 cubic meters. 1% falls outside the country.
  • The global average water footprint is 1,243 cubic meters per person per year.

More blogs about water on this site are here and here.

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