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Virtual water: concealed consumption

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Virtual water: concealed consumption
Water is one of the most important resources on our planet, playing a vital role to ensure that people, animals and plants can survive and indeed thrive. We are often not aware of the amount of water we are actually consuming, and how much of it is needed to manufacture products we use of a daily basis. That is where the term “virtual water” comes into play.
Laura Schönhardt
3 min
Virtual water is the quantity of water that is used indirectly for producing goods and services. It refers to “hidden” water which is used over the different stages of manufacturing and during the transport of products, from agriculture to industry, right up to the end consumer. The idea of virtual water is particularly relevant to discussions about the distribution and use of water across the globe, as it helps us to get a clearer sense of the actual costs of water for consumer goods and to support our lifestyles.

The water footprint – a reflection of our consumption

The water footprint is an indicator of the total water used by a country, region, or person, which takes into account both direct and indirect consumption of water. It is comprised of three main components: green, blue, and grey water footprints. The green water footprint relates to rainwater used in agriculture whereas the blue water footprint covers surface and groundwater which is used in the manufacturing of goods and to provide services; and the grey footprint relates to contaminated water which results from manufacturing.
The average water consumption in the UK is approximately 143 litres per person per day. This includes drinking water and service water, e.g. used for washing and showering – in this case, we are dealing with our blue water footprint. However, the average virtual water footprint for one person in the UK is considerably higher, coming in at around 4,645 litres per person per day. The majority of this is due to the consumption of food and drinks, as well as due to using energy and materials.

Products associated with high water consumption

Some products which require the most water for their manufacture include food, particularly meat and other animal products. For example, around 15,000 litres of water are used to produce one kilogram of beef. The high water consumption associated with meat production can mainly be attributed to feed and water that has to be given to animals over the course of their lives.
Plant-based foods can also be associated with high water consumption, depending on the method of cultivation used and the climate conditions in each growing area. For example, around 3,400 litres of water are needed to produce one kilogram of rice, whereas one kilogram of wheat requires around 1,300 litres of water.
Clothing and textiles are also products which require significant amounts of water to manufacture. On average, around 7,500 to 10,000 litres of water need to be consumed to make one pair of jeans. In this case too, the water consumed is spread out over the entire manufacturing process, including cotton growing, dying, finishing, and washing the jeans. Over the past few years, however, some fashion labels have started to introduce more environmentally friendly manufacturing methods which reduce water consumption and mitigate the environmental impact of their products.

Tips for reducing your own water footprint

In order to reduce your own water footprint, you can make certain decisions which limit the impact your consumption habits have on the environment. Here are 4 tips which can help you to reduce your water footprint:
  1. Reduce your consumption of meat:
    A plant-based diet has a smaller water footprint overall than a diet that includes a lot of animal products. By consuming less meat and milk products and following a balanced diet of plant-based foods and drinks, we can contribute to reducing our water footprint.
  2. Give preference to seasonal and regional products:
    By purchasing food and drinks which are produced in our region and in season, we can contribute to reducing our water footprint as these products lead to reduced costs in terms of both transport and crop irrigation.
  3. Make use of water-saving technologies:
    By implementing water-saving technologies in agriculture, industry and in private homes, we can make a contribution to reducing our water footprint. This includes technologies such as drip-irrigation systems in agriculture, more efficient domestic appliances, and water-saving taps (including aerators and flow regulators).
  4. Reducing rubbish and wasteful usage:
    By avoiding food waste and recycling materials we use; we can contribute to reducing our water footprint as less resources will be required to manufacture new products.
All in all, the concept of virtual water is a vital aspect to consider as part of discussions on sustainable use of water resources. By ensuring we are aware of how much water is required to manufacture the products we consume, we can make informed decisions and reduce our water footprint. However, to really be in a position to make informed decisions as consumers, it would be helpful to have product labelling, for example, which would explain the amount of (virtual) water required. It is only when information is provided in a focused way that we can make use of it. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to promote sustainable practices and to address the challenges facing us in terms of water use and shortages across the globe. If not for another reason, then to ensure a decent livelihood for the next generation.