Some places increasingly suffer from low water supplies for indigenous people on account of agricultural and manufacturing activities serving people in distant societies
Water is fundamental for human life. Naturally there is enormous variability in its availability and societies where water is scarce have learned to adapt to life with low river flows and scarcity of rainfall. However, a series of changes threaten the equilibrium that has existed, bringing the spectre of water scarcity to many places. In an interconnected and globalised world, it is also the case that some places increasingly suffer from low water supplies for indigenous people on account of agricultural and manufacturing activities serving people in distant societies, spatially removed from the sites where water insecurity is developing.
In this 21st Century Challenge, we take a look at the causes of water insecurity and scarcity and the consequences these bring, as well as examine the idea of virtual water and the true scale of our water consumption. Water futures are also considered.
The Earth’s atmosphere contains approximately 13 000 km3 of water.
In 2030, 47% of world population will be living in areas of high water stress.
In low- and middle-income countries, 38% of health care facilities lack any water source, 19% do not have improved sanitation and 35% lack water and soap for handwashing.
The Aral Sea is located in both Kazakhstan and Uzbeckistan
What’s the problem?
Once the world’s fourth largest body of saline water, Central Asia’s Aral Sea has been rapidly shrinking since the 1960s as a result of industrial demands for water in the Soviet region of it’s basin.
In the period 1960-2000, the Aral Sea lost approximately 60% of its area and 80% of its volume as a result of the annual abstractions of water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – the rivers which feed the Aral Sea – to grow cotton in the desert.
Cotton requires high levels of water to grow. To promote rapid growth in the cotton and food industries, the Soviet government opted to divert the two major rivers feeding the sea to irrigate the surrounding desert.
84%: The proportion of water footprint of cotton consumption in the EU25 region which is located outside Europe, with major impacts particularly in India and Uzbekistan.
Although Uzbekistan has profitted in an industrial sense becoming one of the world’s largest exporters of cotton, the resulting environmental catastrophe has had far reaching consequences.
Spreading desertification, the destruction of a thriving fishing industry, climate fluctuations and chemical pollution are the key components of this ecological disaster.
As a direct result of the sea’s high sodium content and industrial pollution, an alarming number of cases of cancer, T.B and kidney failure have been identified amongst local inhabitants, with infant mortality recorded as the worst of any developing country.
For the period 1997-2001 the study shows that the worldwide consumption of cotton products requires 256 Gm3 of water per year. Impacts are typically cross-border.
Hope for the future
A project launched by the Kazakh government and the World Bank has seen the water in the sundered northern part of the Aral Sea increase by 30 per cent in the past five years. This is due to dams and measures to remove river bottlenecks built during Soviet times.
A growth in sea-life and the reintroduction of fishing brings some hope to the area, however the huge demand for cotton in the West casts strong doubts over whether the world’s worst disaster can ever be successfully reversed.
The irrigation, processing and packaging of the produce we consume include water intensive goods such as meat, soya, oil seed, cotton, rice, coffee and cocca. These imports are sourced from Brazil, France, Ireland, Ghana and India among others.There are 2 types of virtual/embedded water:
Blue water – the surface water in our rivers, lakes and in the ground (aquifers)
Green water – water hidden in soils, and is often not recognised and valued. Green water is estimated to enable 85% of the world’s crops to grow.
It’s estimated that the average Briton drinks between 2-5 litres of water per day and will use about 145 litres for cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing. However this doesn’t take into consideration the water used in the processing and manufacturing of everyday products. These products are often produced in countries already at risk from drought or water stress.
In our global economy, each consumer on average requires as much as 5 000 litres of water every day (ranging from 1 500 to 10 000 litres per day, depending where you live and what you eat). Source: World Water Development Report 2012, World Water Assessment Programme, WHO
Here are some examples of the water needed to produce everyday products:
109 litres of water per 125ml glass of wine
1608 litres of water per 1kg of bread (wheat)
2495 litres of water for a shirt of 250 gram
2497 litres of water per 1kg of rice
4325 litres of water per 1kg of chicken meat
15415 litres of water per 1kg of beef
17093 litre/kg of water per 1kg of leather used to make a handbag
17196 litres of water per 1kg of chocolateSource: Waterfootprint.org, 2015, Waterwise
Water is an essential resource, but the scale of global water consumption needed to produce what we use and consume has a dramatic impact around the world. Food and products consumed within a country such as the UK are often produced in other countries. The actual water demand of these nations are often much higher than traditional assessments suggest.
In regions across the world from China to North America; Australia to vast regions of Africa, water resources are struggling to meet demands. The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) note that for the last century water use has been growing at more than twice the rate as population. The irrigation of agriculture continues to be the largest user of water, making up 80% of water use in developing countries.
At the same time the demands of industry and urban areas are growing rapidly. In 2007 a UN report stated that for the first time in history more people now live in cities than rural areas.
The term ‘Virtual Water’ (also known as embedded water) refers to the amount of water that is embedded in food and other products such as clothing and electrical goods.
The production of the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the goods we consume require vast amounts of water for irrigation, processing and packaging.
For example, to produce one kilogram of wheat about 1,000 litres of water is required, i.e. the virtual water of a kilogram of wheat is 1,000 litres. For meat about five to ten times more is required.
The concept of virtual water was introduced by Professor Tony Allen in the early 1990s, while studying the option of importing virtual water (mainly through food imports) as a partial solution to problems of water scarcity in the Middle East.
Hidden water cost of trade
Globalisation has resulted in the integration of many nations into the international global economy through increased levels of trade. As a result many of the goods consumed within countries such as the UK are now produced in other countries across the world.
There are clear and recognised benefits to increasing levels of global trade. But developing countries that increasingly cater for the consumer lifestyles of developed countries are facing serious environmental consequences on local and regional environments.
At the global level, virtual water trade has geo-political implications: it leads to dependencies between countries and can therefore be regarded either as a stimulant for co-operation and peace or a reason for potential conflict.
The water intensive process of growing and processing food, as well as other goods is often carried out in drier areas of the world. In these countries water resources are often either stressed or very likely to become so in the future.
What is a water footprint?
In 2002 the water footprint concept was introduced. It is defined as the volume of freshwater needed for the production of the goods and services consumed by the population of a country. It can also be expressed as an individual’s water consumption.
Traditionally water use has been calculated adding the withdrawals of domestic, agricultural and industrial sectors of a country. This however does not give a true indication of the water actually needed by the population to cater for their lifestyles, as virtual water was never considered until recently.
The true water demand of countries that have high import levels of goods is far higher than national water withdrawals suggest. In the case of the UK, about 62% of the total national water footprint is accounted for by water from other nations, whereas only 38% is used from domestic water resources.
This trend can also work in reverse, with countries that export large amounts of products for consumption elsewhere, such as Australia and Egypt, often have deceptively high national water withdrawals.
Virtual water trade is not new; it is as old as there is food trade. However, the amount of world trade has been steadily increasing since the 1950s.
Import of virtual water can help to relieve the pressure on a nation’s own water resources and environment. Countries, especially those that are water abundant, can export virtual water, however this can lead to environmental consequences and lead to the overexploitation of local resources.
In the past governments have responded to water stress by seeking to augment supply. In the period 1960-2000, the Aral Sea lost approximately 60% of its area and 80% of its volume as a result of the annual abstractions of water from the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – the rivers which feed the Aral Sea – to grow cotton in the desert. Large scale river diversion programmes in China and India show its continuing use.
With the trade of food crops or any commodity, there is a virtual flow of water from producing and exporting countries to countries that consume and import those commodities. In richer countries, people generally consume more goods and services, which in turn translate into increased water footprints both internally and imported from external countries.
Consumption patterns between countries, closely aligned to the gross national income of a country, vary greatly between countries in different regions of the world.
Water-scarce countries can import products that require a lot of water for their production rather than producing them domestically. By doing so, it allows real water savings, relieving the pressure on their water resources or making water available for other purposes.
A recent study carried out by WWF shows that the UK is currently the 6th largest net importer of virtual water for agriculture, behind Brazil, Mexico, Japan, China and Italy.
The irrigation, processing and packaging of the produce that the UK consumes includes water intensive goods such as meat, soya, oil seed, rice, coffee and cocoa. These imports are sourced from Brazil, France, Ireland, Ghana and India among others.
Source: World trade Organisation, WTO (2003): International trade statistics 2003
The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 14 October 2009 to discuss the issue.
George Alagiah (Chair) is the presenter of the BBC Six O’Clock News. He first started on the programme in January 2003. George also presents World News Today on BBC World News, the BBC’s international news channel.
In a new BBC series, ‘The Future of Food’, George investigates the growing global food crisis that could affect the planet in the years ahead, discovering what is wrong with people’s diets, and uncovers that the UK imports an average of 3000 litres of ‘virtual water’ per capita every day.
Before going behind the studio desk, George Alagiah was one of the BBC’s leading foreign correspondents, recognised throughout the industry for his reporting on some of the most significant events of the last decade.
Highlights of his reporting and presenting from abroad include live news programmes from the South Africa/Zimbabwe border, from Sri Lanka following the Asian tsunami, from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and from Pakistan following the south Asian earthquake.
Andy Wales, Head of Sustainability, SABMiller
SABMiller, one of the world’s largest brewers, has brewing interests and distribution agreements across six continents. The company’s portfolio of brands includes international beers such as Pilsner, Peroni Nastro Azzurro, Miller Genuine Draft and Grolsch.
The company are currently working to be more efficient in their water use and engaging with suppliers. This will help them to not only cut costs, reduce risks but be of benefit local communities. In November 2008, SABMiller announced a commitment to reduce water consumption across their global business. The target is to cut the amount of water used by 25% by 2015. The strategy is built round the ‘5R’ model of water responsibility: pRotect, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Redistribute. SABMiller and WWF jointly publish a report analysing water use in the beer value chain.
Robin Farrington, WWF
Robin primarily focuses on engaging the private sector on global water issues.
His work aims to mobilise companies to reduce the impacts of their water footprints on water stressed ecosystems around the world, and to build a compelling business case for the private sector, governments and other stakeholders to tackle shared water-related risks.
“Less than 0.5% of the water on the planet is actually available for our use” Robin Farrington, WWF UK
“We [the UK] are inadvertently contributing to social and economic and environmental problems in many of the poorer areas of the world” Robin Farrington, WWF UK
Dr Chad Staddon is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Environmental Management at the University of the West of England. Chad is also the founder and director of the Bristol Group for Water Research.
Managing increasingly scarce water resources is one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. Now more than ever it is vitally important that applied research on technical water issues needs to link up with “blue skies thinking” so that new solutions can be found. The BGWR is centrally interested in making those linkages – between water sector practitioners and theorists, between the growing water NGO community and academics, between local communities at risk of flood and/or drought and interdisciplinary specialists.
The BGWR is perfectly placed to address these issues and is currently working the following sorts of research initiatives:
-water demand management: towards sustainable policy
-inshore and offshore fishing rights
-implementation of the Water Framework Directive
-flood modelling, planning and mitigation.
“Virtual water is the many hundreds or thousands of litres of water we use indirectly each day. Whether this is in the things that we wear, or the foods we eat, the cars we drive and the lifestyles that we live.” Dr Chad Staddon
“If you pick up a food packet in the supermarket there is already nutrition information, production information, company information and marketing. So I wonder where there would be room for a clear identifiable and easily understood message about embedded water.” Dr Chad Staddon
Tim Lang has been Professor of Food Policy at City University since November 2002. He was Director of the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University from 1994 to 2002, before it moved to City University. He was Director of Parents for Safe Food, 1990-1994 and before that Director of the London Food Commission, 1984 to 1990.
In 2006, he was appointed Natural Resources and Land Use Commissioner on the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission. He is a regular advisor / consultant to the World Health Organisation at global and European levels. He has been a special advisor to four House of Commons Select Committee inquiries (food standards [twice], globalisation and obesity). In 2006-07, he was an advisor to the Foresight Obesity programme, and since 2005 has been a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)
‘Food Supply in the 21st Century’ Working Party and team. He has been a consultant on many occasions for the World Health Organisation, also for the European Commission and Food & Agriculture Organisation. In 2005-06, he chaired the Scottish NHS Executive’s Scottish Diet Action Plan Review. He is a Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health. In 1999-2005 he was Chair of Sustain, the NGO alliance, of which he was a founder member. He has been a Trustee of Friends of the Earth and was Secretary of the Public Health Alliance, predecessor to the UK Public Health Association.
Tim was winner of Observer Food Monthly’s lifetime achievement award in 2007, and well known as the man who coined the phrase ‘food miles’.
“Many of us in my world think water is going to be the crunch issue”
Professor Tim Lang
Managing water resources in the UK, Geography Directions
The water challenge, Professor Dame Judith Rees, for ‘Ask the experts’
Featured image: Johny Goerend @johnygoerend / Unsplash
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