How to Find Out if You Use Too Much Water

These days the environmental buzz is all about carbon. People, businesses and even countries are talking about their "carbon footprint" -- or the impact of their activities on the environment in terms of the greenhouse gases produced (and measured in CO2). As we evolve in our consciousness about how our consumption affects the world around us, and what we can do to live equitably within the bounds of our planet's resources, we need to consider much more than just carbon.

A next step is water. Many of us in the developed world rarely give it a thought. We turn on our drinking and shower taps, and clean water comes out. We flush our toilets and magically, the waste disappears. We turn on our sprinklers and green lawns abound. We run our dishwaters and washing machines and fill up our pools and hot tubs, often without thought.

As our climate crisis becomes a part of daily consciousness, our energy future will need to match our water future. The two are inextricably linked.

And today, on World Water Day, it is the perfect time to ask: How much water do we use?

A new website, H2O Conserve, allows you to actually calculate how much water you use so you can begin to assess your "water footprint." As their site explains, "Your water footprint takes into account not only the water used in your home, but also the water that is used to produce the food you choose to eat and the products you buy. Your water footprint also includes other factors, such as the water used to cool the power plants that provide your electricity and the water that is saved when you recycle. You may not drink, feel or see this water, but it makes up the large majority of your water footprint."

On a global scale, water consumption varies greatly. It is estimated that, in order to survive, a person needs 4 to 5 gallons of water per day -- this includes water for drinking, cooking and sanitation. The average water use per person per day, just for domestic purposes in the United States and Canada is actually around 150 gallons. In Europe, things are different. With roughly the same standard of living, the average resident of the United Kingdom uses 31 gallons per person per day. And of course, in the developing world, the numbers are a stark contrast. The average person living in Africa uses 5 gallons per person per day, which means that in many areas, people are getting even less water than that -- and often not enough to survive. Globally, a staggering 25,000 people die daily from lack of access to clean water.

While the water consumption rates for the United States seem high in comparison, the amount of water we all use is actually even higher. These statistics consider only the basic domestic water use, but the H2O Calculator gives a more holistic view of what impact we have on our water resources. This includes where our energy comes from, the products we buy, how much we drive, whether we use bottled water, and the kinds of food we eat.

The website also goes a step further -- once you know your shocking number (and yes, you'll probably be shocked by the actual number of gallons you use in a day because it's more like 1,000 and not 150) -- there is a ton of information that helps you figure out how to cut that footprint down. Some things are definitely lifestyle choices, like how far you drive and the vehicle you use to get you there. Or the kind of food you eat -- eating lower on the food chain, less meat and dairy, saves a lot more water.

Some of the tips are also pricey and geared more towards homeowners, like when you're in the market for new appliances, choose Energy Star-rated ones or get a rain sensor for your automatic sprinklers on your lawn (or better yet, use xeriscaping). Of course, replacing toilets, showerheads and faucets with low-flow/flush versions save a lot of water and aren't too expensive. Likewise, setting up rain-harvesting or graywater systems to reuse water (although not for drinking) is a great way to cut back on water consumption without shelling out a ton of money. After all, do we really need to be using potable water to flush our toilets and water our lawns?

But there are also lots of tips for people that may be renters or apartment dwellers and aren't able to change their appliances or install solar panels. Here's a few: Recycle and reuse products in your home; buy whole instead of processed foods; only run the dishwasher when full, and if washing by hand, don't leave the water running; save water you use for boiling, and let it cool and then use it for your plants; be speedy in the shower; and the list goes on. A lot of it is common sense or what you may have heard from your parents or grandparents, but much of us could probably use a reminder.

You are what you eat (and buy)

Of course cutting down on how much water we use in our homes and yards is important, but it is only part of the equation. The products that we buy also have their own water footprints that we inherit. How thirsty are some of those? Here's how H2O Conserve breaks it down:

  • Steel for the average car takes about 32,000 gallons of water to produce.

  • Every gallon of gas that a car burns takes 1.75 gallons of water for refining.

  • It takes 24 gallons of water to make 1 pound of plastic, so to produce the average soda (or water) bottle it takes 1.5 gallons of water.

  • Each pound of cotton that makes up our sheets, blankets, towels and clothes takes 101 gallons to produce.

  • A pound of beef takes over 1,500 gallons of water.

  • A cheese sandwich is about 34 gallons of water.

  • A bag of potato chips is 83 gallons of water.

  • A beer is 30 gallons of water.

When you start to break down the numbers, it can get overwhelming -- if not disheartening. But the good thing about our water footprints is that so much of it is in our control. Every time we recycle and conserve, we are decreasing our footprint. We also have options to eat local or regionally produced food and to stay away from the processed, packaged stuff. And when we begin to limit the number of goods we buy or the miles we drive, we're not just impacting our water footprint, we are reducing our carbon footprint as well. When we buy local food, we may also be getting to know our neighbors better and supporting small farmers and local businesses.

Every drop counts

Right now we live in a world that is getting thirstier by the minute. Over 1 billion people don't have access to adequate drinking water and that number is expected to grow over the coming decades. By 2025, the United Nations estimates that 2.8 billion people in 48 countries will be living in areas facing water stress or scarcity. Ten years from now, water managers in the United States expect that 36 states will be strapped for water. Already, regions of the United States, including the Southwest and Southeast have experienced drought in the last year, with Atlanta nearing the end of its drinking supply.

While globally, agriculture uses 70 percent of the world's water, in the United States the numbers are split more evenly between farming (40 percent) and energy/power plants (39) percent. Industry uses 5 percent. Taken together, that's 300 billion gallons of fresh water every day.

Like carbon, our water footprints, need to extend to more than just domestic measures. We can help make industry and agriculture more efficient, and we can move toward using more sustainable energy sources that cut down on both water and fossil fuels. We can eliminate our use of bottled water, and we can fight water privatization at home and around the globe. We can tackle pollution problems and demand clean water standards. We can also support organizations like Food and Water Watch, the Polaris Institute, Blue Planet Project, International Rivers, and Corporate Accountability International, which are fighing water privatization, helping people eliminate bottled water or organizing grassroots movements for water justice.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement across the world that is dedicated to not just helping to conserve and protect our water resources, but also helping to ensure that what we do have is equitably distributed. We can start by figuring out our water footprint, and we can keep going from there. World Water Day is a great day to start.

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