By Jenny Howell, CCCS —
Williams Lake has done well with ‘direct’ water conservation over the last few years. Water consumption is now 20 per cent lower than pre-2006 levels; people understand the need to have short showers, turn off taps, and start planting drought hardy garden species to preserve our finite aquifer.
So for this article I wanted to look more at our ‘indirect’ or ‘virtual’ water consumption—the water you don’t even know you are using. In fact, only 5 per cent of the water used to support our lives is direct or coming through the taps; the other 95 per cent is hidden in the food, energy, products, and services we use, with 90 per cent of our overall water footprint embedded in our food choices alone. The Water Footprint Network compares average water footprints for citizens of different countries; maybe not surprisingly, Canadians have high water footprints. To compare: the global average is 1385 cubic metres a year. Canadians use 2333 cubic metres, Americans 2842, Australians 2315, United Kingdom residents 1258, and folks in India 1089.
And now to make things more complicated… our footprint can be further divided into the proportion of water derived from Canada (internal footprint) to support our lives and the water used from other countries (external footprint). On average, almost 21 per cent of our footprint is external, or made with another country’s water. In fact, there is massive global movement of water use in this way, with water-stressed countries importing more water in the form of products made in more water-rich countries. Canada is, predictably, a big exporter of water to other countries—think agricultural products, oil, timber. If your brain isn’t aching yet, we can add yet another layer, subdividing further into blue, green, and grey footprints, depending on whether the water originates from surface water or rainwater, or is used to dilute pollutants.
Canada is lucky to have about 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater supply. Locally, we’ve been cutting back on our direct consumption to maintain the Williams Lake water source, so why does the rest of our footprint really matter?
The answer to that depends on where the water making up the rest of our footprint comes from. It could be another country that is draining aquifers or rivers to grow the cotton for our clothes, contributing to our blue or green water footprint. It could be here in BC or in another region of Canada where surface and groundwater is becoming polluted with agricultural chemicals or industrial waste for our food and energy demands, contributing to our grey water footprints. Realistically, each of our water footprints will be a combination of low impact water use mixed with some having much more global detrimental effects. If you are feeling energetic, there are tools available to look at your individual footprint more closely and figure this out more specifically (see links below).
However, if you know you will never go to the effort of working out your own footprint, then the easiest approach is to come back once again to the most basic rules of any sustainability message—reduce, reuse, recycle. Fewer products made means less water used and polluted. For help making food choices to reduce your water footprint, the Water Footprint network goes into the details of the water used to grow/produce many common foods—a couple of examples include: one apple-25 litres, 1 kg of wheat-1500 litres, 1 pizza-1260 litres,1 kg pork-5990 litres.
Again, to simplify, eating more vegetarian meals, growing your own garden, and buying from local growers will all help. There are calls to label foods with their water footprint to help consumers. (While an interesting idea, the thought of having to consider the nutritional content, type of packaging, carbon footprint, food miles, water footprint, fair trade issues, price, seasonality, and what everyone at home will actually eat could quickly leave grocery shoppers screaming with frustration in the aisles.)
So while the water footprint is a useful concept for individuals, it is perhaps even more essential to understand it on a national level, as more countries start to face severe water shortages and import water through goods and services that they can no longer produce domestically. Understanding the movements of this ‘hidden’ water can be used to inform both individual and national choices; given our water wealth, Canada will inevitably play a significant role as we face a planet of rising population, changing climate, and the inevitable accompanying geopolitical tensions.
To celebrate 2015 World Water Day, CCCS is sponsoring a FREE swim at the Cariboo Rec Centre on Sunday, March 22 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Display and draw prize on location.
For more information on this event or any Water Wise or Waste Wise school and community programs, contact the Cariboo-Chilcotin Conservation Society at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.cconserv.org.
Water Footprint Network Local, National, and Global Calculator:
National Geographic Water Footprint Calculator:
What is the water footprint of your food? Find out here: