OOSKAnews Voices is a series of guest “opinion columns” written by senior participants in different parts of the international water community. In this article, Kathryn Pharr and Alex Mauroner describe the embedded and often hidden costs of water in our daily lives. They offer up some tips for living more sustainably with the hope that individuals lessening their climate impacts and water footprints can make a huge difference collectively.
This OOSKAnews Voices column was first published May 7, 2019, by Global Water Forum. That original article, including references / footnotes can be dowloaded HERE.
Are you living sustainably?
Water and climate are inextricably linked — so much so that it has almost become a cliché to many in the environmental sector that the effects of climate change will be felt through water. While government policies and sustainable business practices are critical to meeting the Paris Agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 °C, individual actions, when viewed collectively, can have a significant impact too. There are things that each of us can do that impact our water consumption and can help diminish the impact of climate change. Here are some ways you can make sure you are living sustainably and using water resources wisely.
What you’re eating
Agriculture is a water-intensive process (think irrigation, livestock feed, or energy for transport). In fact, it is estimated that the agriculture sector consumes over 70% of global water resources. In our day-to-day lives, we experience this water as ‘virtual water’ — water that is used to create the final product we consume. While in some cases ‘virtual water’ is obvious in the final product (think of a juicy watermelon), in other cases the water footprint is more subtly embedded along the food chain — especially when it comes to meat and poultry. To have a smaller water footprint in your diet, try for more locally produced fruits, vegetables and grains and eat what is in season.
It’s not news that we should also be eating less meat (particularly beef), but if you keep some meat in your diet, what should you focus on? If you’re worried about water and the climate, think about choosing local meat options, which cut down food transportation costs. The majority of soy (a major contributor to deforestation) used to feed livestock in Europe, for example, comes from South America. This process imposes costs on meat and other animal products in our diets.
Meat consumption also impacts water. Water is used to grow the soy or grain. It is also used in electricity generation and refining fossil fuels to transport agricultural feed to farms, to make the electricity needed to manufacture plastic wrap, and to transport the final product to your grocery store. Essentially all energy uses (except wind generation) rely on water resources. Try to buy from smaller producers, too, as industrial livestock production can have negative impacts on water quality due to nutrient pollution and waste runoff.
With all that water going into food creation and distribution, thinking about food waste is also important. While some food waste is about what we throw away and don’t eat, it is also about what gets grown (using water and other resources) but doesn’t make it through the supply chain to consumers. In total, one third (1.3 billion tons) of all the food produced around the world is wasted or lost in the process. While using leftovers, freezing items, and planning meals carefully can minimize your food waste, you can help with food loss by buying ‘ugly’ produce, i.e. fruit and vegetables that do not match expectation such as a twisted carrot. There are companies and supermarkets that sell such produce — often at a discount.
Palm oil is an ingredient that is ‘natural’ but has a high virtual water footprint due to deforestation and its transport around the world as part of supply chains. While it is in processed foods, it is also in other everyday household items that permeate our homes and lifestyles. Check ingredients for palm oil and be sure to look for its alternative names. Cooking your own meals from scratch is often the best way to keep palm oil out of your food.
How you’re travelling
Given the relationship between water and energy, travel is a major contributor to both CO2 emissions and water use; each gallon of fossil fuel uses 3-6 gallons of water in the refining process. By walking or biking you can reduce fossil fuels use and its associated water footprint. Public transportation diminishes the amount of fossil fuels and water used as well because more people are travelling per gallon of gas used. If you have to drive a car, plan your trips so that you are driving as little as possible and at the least congested times to save time and fuel. And don’t forget to carpool whenever possible (a great way to get to know a co-worker!).
But the big elephant in the room is air travel. While you aren’t technically travelling alone, flying infrastructure, including airports, can be the biggest contributor to someone’s carbon footprint. Reducing air travel is the preferred option; however, if you are travelling a distance where only an airplane can get you there, there are still tips (type of aircraft, fuel-efficient airline, flying non-stop, packing less) that you can use to help reduce your energy-water footprint.
What we wear
When it comes to clothing, less is more. The production of clothing requires large volumes of water at nearly every step of the way: growing fibres, bleaching, washing, dying, etc. It takes 3900 litres of water just to produce one cotton t-shirt. So, really think about each purchase. Try resisting the urge to buy new clothes each season, and instead focus on items that will last (and bring you joy) for several years.
Knowing synthetic fibres increase microplastic pollution, you may think wearing natural fibres is the best alternative. There is some truth to that, but given the water-intensive supply chain for cotton you also need to look for sustainable cotton options. For those who are also concerned about livelihoods in the supply chain, check out the work GAP is doing on sustainability.
If you are overwhelmed by trying to figure out the supply chains of stores (and you wouldn’t be alone), there are some pretty simple options available: buy used (thrift and consignment shops have amazing finds) and buy less (think capsule wardrobe).
What if you’re renting
Too many articles highlighting what to do to help the climate require owning a house (installing solar panels, changing insulation, etc). It may feel like there is very little that you can do as a renter, but not all is lost. For example, if you are painting a room, look for environmentally friendly paint with a low or no volatile organic compounds.
Cutting down on your energy-water usage will help the planet and your purse. Remember that water is being used to generate electricity, and in many power plants it is only used once and then released back into the environment at a slightly warmer temperature — a process that can damage aquatic life through thermal pollution.
You can start simple at home by finding small ways to lower the amount of energy you use. For example, you can upgrade your TV’s digital video recorder to lower your electricity usage. Dryers take a large amount of energy, so line dry when you can. Heating and cooling are very energy intensive. Try to set the thermostat a little lower in winter and higher in summer, maybe even making some adjustments when you’re not home or sleeping. If you have a problem with drafts, use adhesive foam strips for doors or even add a rug to the room.
Reach out to your energy provider; some offer free energy efficiency audits or home improvement kits for renters. You also may have the option to switch providers to one that uses renewable energy. Some water companies may offer free options for lowering the water throughput in your shower head. As a bonus, by using less hot water you reduce your heating bill.
What you use and how you use it can make a difference. Everything you own and use has some virtual water in it. Recycling means that virgin materials are not used to generate new items, which conserves natural resources like water and gas along with electricity. For example, recycling a ton of newspapers saves 7,000 gallons of water, 601 kilowatts of energy, 71 gallons of gasoline, and 4.6 cubic yards of landfill space.
Recycle and reuse everything you can, and know what you can recycle where. For example, dry cleaners often take hangers that thrift stores might discard in the trash. You might not be able to compost in your apartment, but you might be able to find a place in your neighbourhood that takes food recycling like allotments. Identifying alternatives to throwing everything in the recycling bin are important because many recycling organisations now face their own challenges as the market for raw recycled goods dwindles.
Your choice of household cleaning products can also make a difference. Using some basic cleaning tools like vinegar and baking soda can cut down on harsh chemicals and reduce water pollution. There are lots of ‘green’ cleaning products and detergents available for purchase these days, too.
Be informed and share
Being informed about climate change and water resources helps you to align your actions to your goals and to reduce your water and climate impact. It also gives you the opportunity to share with others what they can do. Try signing up for email campaigns (we’re big fans of the NYTimes Climate Fwd weekly newsletter). Like podcasts? You’ll find several focused on climate and water (e.g., ClimateReady and WaterValues). Follow organizations or news outlets that you trust on social media. Don’t just read. Share the stories that move you, so that your family and friends can stay informed as well.
You can also get in engaged by doing research into sustainable companies and buying from brands that share your values. Reach out to local or national authorities and politicians to voice your concerns. As you’re carrying out some of these new practices to lessen your climate and water impact, try to have honest but non-judgmental conversations with your friends and family about why you’re doing this. You can start a chain reaction, helping this work move from an individual to a collective level. One person alone won’t save the planet, but by working together, we all just might.