Did you know that avocados have an estimated water footprint of almost 2,000 litres per kilogram. In Chile’s arid Petorca region, every cultivated hectare of avocados requires 100,000 litres a day of irrigation. Villagers nearby now depend on trucked-in water supplies, after underground aquifers and rivers dried up. That is the reality of the hidden cost of consumer consumption and water scarcity. 

Today, March 22 is World Water Day, a day designated by the United Nations to bring attention to the importance and need of safe water around the world. Water is life and access to safe water is a basic human right. However, 2.1 billion people around the world live without safe drinking water affecting their health, wellbeing, education and livelihoods. Water is so critical to life and wellbeing that it was added by the UN as a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 6) which commits the world to ensuring that everyone has access to safe water by 2030, and includes measures to protect the natural environment and reduce pollution.

Unfortunately we are falling well short of achieving this goal and billions of people are still living without safe water in their homes, schools, workplaces and businesses making it difficult to survive and to thrive. The impact of water poverty hits even harder on marginalized groups such as women, children, refugees and other disadvantaged people who have an even harder time getting access to safe water spending hours a day making a long, treacherous journey to remote water sources.

In my work, I’ve had the opportunity to learn and write about safe water and have witnessed firsthand the impact of bringing safe water to communities during a trip to Western Kenya last year with LifeStraw.  I have also been fortunate to have seen the work of WaterAid -the world’s leading nonprofit providing safe water and sanitation around the world – on the ground in both India and Ethiopia. The more I’ve seen, the more passionate I’ve become about spreading awareness about water poverty and injustice and what we can personally do to make a difference.

In honor of World Water Day, WaterAid has published a new report, Beneath the Surface, that uncovers why and how water poverty exists and identifies the massive amounts of water used in daily products, such as coffee, wheat, rice, cotton and more. The results of the reports are surprising and a bit scary. However, the upside is that the report suggests what we as consumers can do about it and how we can personally make a difference.

LifeStraw

Carrying a 20 L Jerrycan of water on your head isn’t easy but these Kenyan women do it several times a day.

Here are some of the key findings in the report:

Lack of Access:

Whether you have access to water for drinking, cooking, washing and other daily needs greatly depends on where you live in the world. Even some places that you would think would have enough water simply don’t and the list of water scarce countries may surprise you. For example, 130 million people in the United States live part of the year without enough water which is the same figure as in Bangladesh.

One in nine people do not have access to clean water close to home, and just under two-thirds of the world’s population – 4 billion – live in areas of physical water scarcity, where for at least part of the year demand exceeds supply.

Women and children gather water from the water source in Nacoto village, Mossuril District, Nampula Province, Mozambique – October 2017. Photo credit: WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

What Countries are under the greatest risk?

Countries with large populations living with water scarcity include India, Bangladesh, China, USA, Pakistan, Nigeria and Mexico. In India, about 1 billion people live with water scarcity during at least one part of the year and surprisingly about 130 million people in the US do as well. However, the US has one of the largest water “footprints” in the world consuming approximately 7,800 litres per person per day! A water footprint is the amount of water needed to create a product from start to finish. For example, to make a cup of coffee it does not just take the water to brew it, it includes the water used to irrigate the crops and process the beans making the water footprint of your daily cup of coffee about seven 20-litre jerrycans full.

Why Does Water Scarcity Exist?

First of all, water scarcity exists based on physical scarcity. About 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia and the Middle East, yet that area only receives slightly more than a third of the world’s water from rain or melting snow. Simply stated, some of these countries have a huge population with very little water. Second of all, water scarcity is also due to social-economic scarcity making it unavailable due to lack of investment in safe water and political will. Many poor countries use up a great deal of their own water to make the goods that wealthy countries want to buy. While this does create economic growth and opportunity for the exporters, they often deplete their own water without having enough water for their own people. This water that is used to produce goods, clothing, and food is called “Virtual water” and inadvertently acts to further exasperate water poverty and scarcity. It is estimated that 22% of the world’s water is used towards producing products for export.

Did you know that a lunchtime hamburger of about 110 grams might not appear to contain much water, but, on average, it took 1,700 litres of water, or 85 jerrycans, to get it to your plate.

Helene Jemussene (R) carries her baby Agostinho, aged 3, on her back as she gathers water from the river near M’Mele Village, Cuamba District, Niassa Province, Mozambique – May 2017. Photo credit: WaterAid/ Eliza Powell

Why are we not making much progress in achieving water for all?

Per the report: “Globally, we now use six times as much water as we did 100 years ago – and that figure is growing by 1% every year. Population growth and changes in diet are expected to increase the water demands of agriculture by around 60% by 2025.” Combine this with climate change and competing demands from industry and agriculture, the threat of having enough water for basic human consumption and needs is even more daunting.

What Can We Do?

Governments, businesses, retailers, investors and consumers all play an important role in ensuring we have water for all. While governments around the world need to prioritize water security by ensuring proper legislation and regulations, businesses and industries also must commit to water sustainability roadmaps and guidelines. We as consumers can use our purchasing power to make a difference by minimizing our own use of virtual water by such simple things as not wasting so much food, being mindful of what we purchase, consume and eat, and by simply consuming less.

Eevelyne collecting dirty water from a hole dug in the sand, in a partially dried riverbed located next to her family compound. This was what she used to do when there was no safe water point in her district, in the village of Sablogo, in the Commune of Lalgaye, province of Koulpelogo, Region of Centre-East, Burkina Faso, January 2018. Photo credit: WaterAid/ Basile Ouedraogo

All of the information used in this post are used with permission from WaterAid’s Beneath the Surface report. 

Want to Learn more?

Download and read WaterAid’s report: Beneath the Surface: The State of the World’s Water 2019. It is fascinating and a quick read.

Here are some more facts about water from the UN Water Day:

  • 2.1 billion people live without safe water at home.
  • One in four primary schools have no drinking water service, with pupils using unprotected sources or going thirsty.
  • More than 700 children under five years of age die every day from diarrhoea linked to unsafe water and poor sanitation.
  • Globally, 80% of the people who have to use unsafe and unprotected water sources live in rural areas.
  • Women and girls are responsible for water collection in eight out of ten households with water off-premises.

About WaterAid:
WaterAid
 is the world’s largest international nonprofit organization specifically dedicated to helping the world’s poorest people transform their lives through access to safe water, toilets and hygiene education. WaterAid works closely together with local governments, community-based organizations and individuals in 26 countries across Africa, Asia, Central America and the Pacific region to employ affordable and locally appropriate water, sanitation and hygiene solutions. Since 1981, WaterAid has reached 21 million people with safe water and, since 2004, 18 million people with toilets and sanitation. www.wateraid.org

6 comments

    1. Thanks Lexi. Yes I learned a lot and things I had never thought about before such as the impact of virtual water.

  1. The image of the women carrying water in Kenya is very vivid.

    The water scarcity in the US was a big surprise in the report but it was the US water footprint that was most (sadly) astounding. The 700 children deaths everyday is certainly enough motivation to keep my consumption at a miming.

    Thank you as always for bring light to world challenges and some simple suggestions that we can implement to address it.

    1. I’ll never forget taking that photo. The woman were smiling at me and asking if I wanted to try balancing a water jerrican on my head. I knew there was no way I could do it! I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of similar things in your travels. Whenever I turn on the faucet I pause and think.

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