Massive Misuse of Fresh Water: Why isn’t the Problem Being Addressed?

We are pleased to present a new Routledge Sustainability blog post: written by Arjen Y. Hoekstra, author of new book The Water Footprint of Modern Consumer Society.

Massive Misuse of Fresh Water: Why isn’t the Problem Being Addressed?

By Arjen Y. Hoekstra, author of The Water Footprint of Modern Consumer Society

Water pollution is normal. In China and Bangladesh it happens that the colour of the river shows which dye is being used in the clothes manufacturing industry. In the US, atrazine concentrations in groundwater reach beyond acceptable levels due to overuse of the pesticide in agriculture. Overconsumption of water is normal as well. In several places on Earth, groundwater levels drop at alarming levels, in some cases, like in Yemen, by one metre per year. Several rivers run dry before they flow into the sea; think of the Yellow River in China or the Colorado in the US.

For many of us, freshwater scarcity is something that occurs ‘elsewhere’. The problems, however, are closer to us than we may think. Our daily consumer goods are often imported from water-scarce places. The water consumption and pollution in remote places is ours. Take the UK, for instance. About 75% of the water footprint of UK consumers lies abroad. It’s in our own interest to make water use sustainable, not only nearby, but also elsewhere, because we depend on it.

The problems are not of today. Nevertheless, we haven’t found ways yet to properly address them. In my new book The Water Footprint of Modern Consumer Society, I propose three principles of wise water use and allocation. First, it will be vital that governments agree on water footprint caps for all river basins in the world, in order to ensure sustainable water use within each basin. A water footprint cap sets a maximum to the water volume that can be allocated to the various human purposes, accounting for environmental water needs. It also sets a maximum to pollution given the assimilation capacity of the basin. The total volume of ‘water footprint permits’ to specific users in a basin should remain below the maximum sustainable level. Water use in itself is not the problem, but not returning the water or not returning it clean is the problem. The water footprint measures exactly that: the consumptive water use and the volume of water polluted.

Second, we need to establish water footprint benchmarks for the most important water-intensive products, for example for food and beverage products, cotton, flowers and biofuels. The benchmark for a product will depend on the maximum reasonable water consumption in each step of the product’s supply chain. In this way, producers that use water, governments that allocate water and manufacturers, retailers and final consumers in the lower end of the supply chain, share information about what are ‘reasonable water footprints’ for various process steps and end products. When granting certain water footprint permits to specific users, it makes sense for governments to take into account the relevant water footprint benchmarks for the different users. Furthermore, governments should force companies to create greater product transparency, so that we will know what’s on our plate.

Third, we need to ensure equitable water use across communities. We need some common understanding of what makes the water footprint of a community of consumers fair or reasonably acceptable, given the limited maximum sustainable water footprint per global citizen. Consumers in the US and Southern Europe use nearly two times more water than the global average. We need a political debate at the international level about fair sharing of the world’s freshwater resources. Given UN population projections, the average water footprint per capita will have to decrease from 1,385 cubic metres in 2000 to 835 cubic metres in 2100 if we want to make sure that the water footprint of humanity as a whole will not increase over the coming century. If we assume an equal water footprint share for all global citizens, the challenge for countries like China and India is to reduce the current water footprint per capita level by about 22.5 per cent over the coming century. For a country like the USA, it means a reduction of the average water footprint per capita by about 70 per cent. Improved technologies alone will not be sufficient to reach this goal. We need to reconsider our consumption pattern as well. Taking a shorter shower will not be sufficient. Eating less meat, one of the big water users in our diet, will be a more effective step.

Summarizing, there are many river basins in the world in which our water footprint needs to be reduced substantially. That can be achieved by setting a water footprint cap per river basin, setting water footprint reductions targets for specific products and by changing consumption patterns so that they become less water intensive.