What is Virtual Water and Why Should I Be Worried?
How much water did you have with your lunch today? Most of you might say something like a glass, or bottle, which amounts to somewhere between 8 and 12 ounces on average. But that would hardly account for all the water you actually had for lunch. What about the soup or the espresso you had to jolt you through that post food coma that was sure to set in? Well that thimble full of espresso was made with approximately 37 gallons of water, and that bowl of soup, well who knows? The fact is there is “virtual water” hidden in that modest cup of espresso easily makes a 4-ounce cup into a 37-gallon cup. When you consider all the water used in growing, producing, packaging and shipping the beans that went into that espresso you come up with this number. In essence, virtual water is the embedded water that is utilized in the production of a good or service, like your beloved bit of espresso.
We have all been made aware of the environmental impact of our food supply, and have wrestled with concepts around “food miles” and such, but when it comes to water, most consumers just don’t think that much about it. Part of it, at least in the western world, is because water is so damn cheap that we just don’t have to think about it. But the story is much different in other nations struggling with water shortages, and is set to change for everyone, as water shortages become less of a regional occurrence and more of a global reality.
New research shows that we throw away, on average, twice as much water per year in the form of uneaten food as we use for washing and drinking, as reported in the Guardian UK. “What is worse, increasing amounts of our food comes from countries where water is scarce, meaning the food we discard has a huge hidden impact on the depletion of valuable water resources across the world.” John Anthony Allen, PHD, is a British geographer and is widely credited with creating and popularizing the idea of “virtual water” with his aptly titled book, Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet’s Most Precious Resource. “Our ignorance is immense,” says Allen, “Most of us don’t have the slightest idea about the sheer volumes of water involved in our daily lives.”
Now I would understand it if you are, at this moment, throwing up your hands and trying to drown yourself in your low flow toilet. Just as you feel you have done as much as you could possibly do to be a sustainable and conscientious person, stats like this come along and make you feel the problems are so entrenched and systemic that nothing you could do can make even the slightest bit of difference. But it might be as easy as just wasting less food. Food waste (which the numbers are staggering) accounts for somewhere around 5 to 8% of the United States greenhouse gas emissions. If this could be significantly lowered a few percentage points, it could make a sizable difference – the equivalent of taking a few million cars off the road. So don’t bother drinking less, but just (as you do with most things) consume wisely and waste not.