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Shrinking My Water Footprint: How Much Water Do We Use and Where Does it Comes From?

There isn't an easy way to see the connection between my consumption and the water problems that have been hitting headlines.

I live in Minneapolis where I have a 24-hour water supply. I take it for granted that I will have running water whenever I need it -- for brushing my teeth, drinking, cooking or cleaning. I often forget what a luxury it is!

Before coming to the United States, I lived in a small town in western India called Rajkot for a few years. There, I lived in an apartment complex surrounded by a still developing concrete jungle. The apartment complex promised a regular water supply. Regular water supply meant that running water was available for an hour each day in the morning and in the evening.

I was living by myself, and I would collect enough water in the morning hours to meet my personal needs for the day. I ate my food out often, since I was on the road most of the time, and got my clothes washed outside. But for my neighboring families -- with at least four to five members -- it was a struggle to meet their water needs from this municipal water supply. They would often resort to water supplied through tankers from neighboring villages -- never mind if those villagers were selling water to the city because it was more profitable than raising crops, or even if it was lowering the water table so much that people without mechanical pumps could no longer get enough water for their basic needs.

These water-poor villagers are among the numbers often cited in United Nations global water statistics: 2.6 billion without water for basic sanitation needs and 1.1 billion without access to safe drinking water. The impact of urban water use in Rajkot on surrounding villages was clearly visible to all.

However, living in the U.S., the connections between my water use and the global water crisis is not so clear. I live in Minnesota by the Mississippi River and our public water system provides me with excellent water at a very reasonable rate. In the U.S., the same clean water is used for washing our cars, watering our lawns and filling our backyard pools, making the average water use of a U.S. resident 151 gallons a day. Compare this with the average water use in most African countries: less than 15 gallons a day.

I realize that my daily water use -- for drinking, cleaning, cooking and washing -- is only a small part of the water I use. Most of the water I use is invisible to me -- it is in the food I eat, in the soda I drink and in the clothes I wear. It is in the making of the gas I put in my car and in the generation of electricity that I use to light my home. It is also in the making of computers, cell phones and cars that I use. With the exception of my summer vegetables, most of these things are not made or grown in Minnesota and thus most of the invisible water I use is not Minnesota water. The water I use could be from California or Florida, or it may be from Australia or South Africa. But there isn't an easy way to see the connection between my consumption and the water problems that have been hitting headlines.

An early 2001 Harper's Magazine article had an interesting story to tell: according to the author, one out of two flowers bought in the United States is produced in the Bogotá Savanna in Colombia. The pursuit of flora-culture has resulted in the contamination of water from heavy pesticide use, and also in the lowering of the water table, causing tremendous water stress among the local populations.

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