With World Water Day happening on March 22, I would like to take some time to reflect on the impact we humans have on the environment. The concept of a footprint has been around since the 1990s and started with the ecological footprint which is a measure of how much nature we as humans use compared to how much nature available to us. The ecological footprint is a measure of the area of land and aquatic ecosystems that are needed to support a person or a nation’s lifestyle. Although notions to reduce individuals and countries’ impact has been around for decades, in recent years reducing our impact and changing our actions has gained a louder voice.
Water is an essential resource for life and living in northwestern Ontario can have the perception that there is an abundance of clean water, the reality is that globally accessible clean water is being threatened. Arjen Hoekstra is a researcher who has written numerous papers on the impacts of consumption on an individual’s water footprint.
A person’s water footprint encompasses all the water a person’s lifestyle uses, this includes the domestic use from activities such as flushing toilets, showering, and cleaning, but also includes virtual water which is the water used in making goods and providing services. It accounts for the water involved in producing the products a person consumes; from the food we eat, to the clothes we wear, to the cars we drive, all of the water used to produce those goods is included in the water footprint. Water footprints can be calculated on an individual basis but also for a whole industry or country.
The typical Canadian resident uses about 220 L/day of water. This number merely represents the amount from activities that can be measured on a household’s water meter. When you include non-residential uses that rely on municipal sources, the amount of water used per person in Canada increases to around 427 L/day. These numbers don’t reflect what is known as virtual water.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) created this short film that does a great job at providing visuals about how our consumption patterns impact our water footprint.
Here is a calculator to get an estimate of your personal water footprint. No calculator is perfect, but it is a tool you can use to access where your own consumption levels are. You can also change the values and see what happens as you increase or decrease your meat consumption or the number of loads of laundry, or if you utilize only rainwater to water your garden.
Water issues are often looked at on a local or national scale, but water issues are a global issue. The majority of the goods we as Canadians buy are not manufactured in Canada and the materials which go into those products don’t necessarily come from Canada. The majority of the food sold in grocery stores does not come from Canadian soil. Although I wish I could pick avocados while walking to Hillcrest, the Canadian climate is not suitable for the majority of foods we’ve grown accustomed to love. The water volumes measured by municipal water meters underestimates the amount of water needed to support the average Canadian lifestyle.
The water footprint also typically doesn’t account for pollutants added to the water from anthropogenic activities. Polluted waters are a serious problem for people globally. Threats to water supply and water quality are already a global issue and are only expected to increase in severity with time.
Some ways to reduce your water footprint are to conserve water, be conscious of what foods you eat, and consume less. Conservation of water is a free method that can have big collective impacts. Conservation entails reducing the amount of water your household or business uses. This can be a done in a variety of ways from reducing shower times, to installing low-flush toilets, to installing a rain barrel to supply gardening needs. There are many ways a household can look to reduce the amount of water. If you don’t already, make sure to turn off the tap while you brush your teeth, it’s an easy place to start that requires little effort. Another way to reduce your water footprint is to be conscious of what you’re eating. One kilogram of beef requires 15,000 L of water where one kilogram of soybeans requires around 25 L of water. Trying to go meat-less each Monday can be a great way to reduce your impact if you’re used to eating meat every day. There are lots of great vegetarian meals packed with flavor. According to Hoekstra & Chapagain’s (2006) research, the four main factors impacting a country’s water footprint are the volume of consumption, consumption pattern, climate, and agricultural practices. Reducing the overall amount you consume can have a beneficial impact on global water resources even if the results aren’t readily apparent.