How big is your water footprint? You may be surprised

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From shopping of cotton clothes to eating in fast food joints, there are hidden huge amounts of water being used for the production of modern consumer products, according to the Water Footprint Network. Image: Radu Bercan/ Shutterstock

If you recently bought a pair of jeans or ate a burger for dinner, followed by a nice cup of coffee, you probably didn’t link the touch of cotton or the aroma of the food to the amount of water that was used to produce them.

It might be good idea to start thinking about it.

There is more to a cup of coffee than just the 125 ml of water poured into a cafetiere: an astounding 140 litres of water is needed to grow the coffee beans for one cup. The production of one hamburger requires 17 times more: 2,400 litres.

Just 1 kg of cotton (think a pair of jeans) requires 10,000 litres of water for growing cotton, dying and washing.

It’s important to promote the message about the need for transparency in the global supply chain to companies and governments

Ruth Mathews, director of the Water Footprint Network

That’s why our water footprint - the impact our activities has on fresh water resources – matters. Our decisions about what we consume affect water resources in places where the products are made.

And many of them, like world’s top cotton producers China and India, or coffee growers like Colombia, may already be experiencing water problems.

According to Ruth Mathews, director of the Water Footprint Network, which promotes sustainability and efficiency of water use, it’s time not just for big companies -  many of which have already started calculating their water footprints -  but also for individuals to be aware of the effects of their consumption.

“If we continue to improve our quality of life in terms of the amount of goods that we consume, more and more people will be living with water scarcity,” Mathews told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from the Netherlands.

An average person in the UK uses around 150 litres of water per day, a figure that rises to more than 4,500 litres per day, when all the “hidden water” is calculated. However, almost 750 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water at all.

“Not everybody will become a vegetarian, but you can make considerations whether you eat meat one day less a week. Or is there a need for me to have 20 cotton T-shirts or can I get away with 10 or five?” Mathews said.

Changes in our decision-making, she argues, can help other people gain access to clean water.

“Even companies may not know exactly where their cotton came from for the products that they’re selling,” said Mathews.

Therefore it’s important, she said, to promote the message about the need for transparency in the global supply chain to companies and governments.

“If we continue on the path of overusing our water resources it’s going to be more and more difficult for us to be able to fairly support our human beings with the goods and services that we need not only for basic needs but for good quality of life.

“What an individual can do is look at the consumer choices and see if they can make different choices that can have smaller water footprint. Not just a smaller water footprint, but for a more sustainable one.”

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