Dipping a toe in global waters

Photo by Gary Spears on Pexels.com

Vetturale di natura (vehicle of nature)” said Leonardo Da Vinci, when he observed water and studied hydrodynamics. Then there are others who explore the world of water in a different way. One of them is Joshka Wessels. She has documented and researched the technology and rehabilitation of thousand-year old underground water tunnels called qanats in countries like Syria, North Iraq, Oman, Algeria, Morocco and Spain. These qanats face the danger of drying up due to climate change led droughts. She speaks about this in her documentary ‘Water from the Dawn of Civilization‘.

Recently, The Guardian asked its readers if they were affected by a lack of water or drought. It asked them to share their pictures and stories via GuardianWitness. It may seem that only those who are afflicted by these conditions care the most about water scarcity. But many organisations and companies are measuring their water footprint to see the impacts of their water usage around the world, because they realize the importance of water. If such steps are not taken, wars would be waged in the name of water. This world map shows water conflicts around the globe.

What if thirsty people start killing each other like zombies? How’s that for apocalypse? Jon Freedman, Global Government Affairs Leader, GE differs in opinion in this talk where they discuss why everyone is obsessed with apocalypse. He says he is not a fan of drinking his own pee and the solution of water scarcity in fact involves drinking your open pee, by which he meant treated waste water. He points out that there is water scarcity around the world, but there is a solution. ‘We can desalinate and treat waste water,’ he says. He says that there is no such thing as absolute water scarcity and water desalination is a solution as long as you have a coastline. Wait a minute, approximately one-fifth of the world’s countries are landlocked and have no access to the oceans, what are they going to do? Probably treat and reuse waste water. No wonder he says waste water treatment comes first to desalination. In desalination vs. purification, purification wins, because desalination is too costly.
Coming back to water footprinting, Waterfootprint Network defines water footprinting as the total volume of freshwater used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business, measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated or incorporated into a product) and/or polluted per unit of time. Three kinds of water footprints are measured and these are:
  1. Green water footprint is water from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of the soil and evaporated, transpired or incorporated by plants. It is particularly relevant for agricultural, horticultural and forestry products.
  2. Blue water footprint is water that has been sourced from surface or groundwater resources and is either evaporated, incorporated into a product or taken from one body of water and returned to another, or returned at a different time. Irrigated agriculture, industry and domestic water use can each have a blue water footprint.
  3. Grey water footprint is the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants to meet specific water quality standards. The grey water footprint considers point-source pollution discharged to a freshwater resource directly through a pipe or indirectly through runoff or leaching from the soil, impervious surfaces, or other diffuse sources.

Classification of water footprint by type of water only paints half the picture, we also have local consumption, global water consumption and virtual-water flows. The impacts of making a product in a country ‘A’ could have a water footprint in a country ‘B’. How? This is called the virtual flow of water. Who best describes it than P. Sainath? He talks about rose cultivation in Maharashtra in his article ‘How the other half dries‘. Roses require 21.2 million litres of water per acre and its exports from India went up by some 15-25 % in 2013. Dr. Craig Jones provides an example of steel cladding. Steel cladding in European Union could be causing a impact in India, which has considerable water shortages. This is what is called ‘importing water scarcity’ by exporting products, which no one wants but has anyway. The virtual-water flows related to international trade in crop, animal and industrial products (1996-2005) can be seen down below.


(Image: Virtual water balance per country and direction of gross virtual water flows related to trade in agricultural and industrial products over  the period 1996-2005. Only the biggest gross flows (> 15 Gm3/yr) are shown; the fatter the arrow, the bigger the virtual water flow. Source: Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2011) National water footprint accounts: the green, blue and grey water footprint of production and consumption, Value of Water Research Report Series No. 50, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, the Netherlands.)

ISO 14046:2014, an international standard for water footprint assessment, specifies principles, requirements and guidelines related to water footprint assessment of products, processes and organizations based on life cycle assessment (LCA). The GEMI Local Water Tool™(LWT) is a free tool for companies and organizations to evaluate the external impacts, business risks, opportunities and management plans related to water use and discharge at a specific site or operation. We also have a tool by the Water Footprint Network.

Even if standards and tools for water conservation are at our disposal, conservation of existing water bodies is equally important. For example, Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) India claimed that the 2014 Kashmir floods were caused due to shrinking wetlands and therefore is a man-made disaster. They said that wetlands act as a sponge that retains excess water. Due to economic development in these areas, Dal Lake has shrunk to half its size and Wular Lake is just 10% of its original size. Shrinkage of water bodies has also been seen in other parts of the world. For example, the Aral Sea.

If you want to see a change, you got to be that change, said Gandhi and he is right. I have a different lifestyle here in the US and therefore my water consumption pattern has changed. I just found out, National Geographic has a water footprint calculator, but unfortunately it only applies to USA. Now that I’m in USA, I tried and I’m guilty. But it would have been great if I could do that for India as well, because then I’d know the difference. The calculator by Water Footprint Network on the other hand lets me choose the country I live in. Be sure to try their extended calculator. It asks too many things though, for example, I don’t know how much kgs of cereal I eat every week. That’s too overwhelming for me! I therefore choose to use water consciously, instead of measuring my water usage (grumbles). If you try, let me know! Peace-out. Lots of tips out there by the way, to save water.

Further reading:

Thanks to Circular Ecology and Craig Jones, who delivered a webinar on water footprint, which inspired me to write this article. You can find the webinar details and the video here. During this webinar, I asked him some questions that might interest you and I’ve noted them down below. For questions from other participants and the answers to all the questions, see the webinar video.

  • Q. Are there any dirty dozens of sorts for industries that consume water the most? (Psst. I just found out that Sustainable Technology Forum has 10 listed.)
  • Q. Are there any water footprinting calculators for common people? (Like I said in the article above, I have just found out two such calculators.)
  • Q. It would be interesting to see the difference of footprinting, carbon or water, of synthetic meat vs real meat. (Psst. I just found out Water Footprint Network has this one sorted.)

Water history for our times: The revised version of Water History of our Times was published end of June 2011 by UNESCO-IHP. The essay was written by Professor Fekri Hassan, the Egyptian archaeologist and historian. The books purpose is to foster a better understanding of the historical development, cultural diversity and ethics of freshwater use and management, and its relationship to issues of equity, cooperation and social cohesion, which is considered a prerequisite for the equitable and peaceful sharing of water resources.

John Anthony Allan – the brain behind virtual water and water footprinting

2 thoughts on “Dipping a toe in global waters

  1. All water that we drink is purified waste water – most of it salt water from the oceans, so I think that the solution is technological. In fact, the technology to purify water is already in existence – eg. Slingshot and LifeStraw. I think that this will have an enormous impact on water supplies in the next two decades.


    1. Steve, yes we all drink purified water in the form of precipitation. It’s a big water cycle in nature, like all other biological cycles. We could be drinking this free of cost purified water if we harvest it in a way that doesn’t cost us. Instead, we like to take it from lakes that do our job. In doing so, we spend tons of money. So now, do we all really need the technologies you mention? Not all of us, but may be those living in the areas with little or no precipitation. In the spirit of exploration and being human, yes, we do need such technologies and make them feasible.


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