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Is your water footprint leaving an impression on water scarcity?

Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO, Sanitation and Water for All
21 Apr 2020

Have you ever thought about your water usage once you turn off the tap? Let us start from your daily caffeine fix- did you know one cup of coffee uses 130 litres of water. Now think about the main ingredient of Pastéis- eggs, weighing 60 gram on average, utilizes about 200 litres of water. Putting the food plate on your water diet helps calculate the real water footprint. For instance, the meat you eat or the cotton you wear might often be grown in river basins far away, sometimes even in water-scarce countries. Without knowing it we are in many cases indirectly affecting water resources throughout the world. 

Water scarcity strongly correlates with increased food production (read: intensive agriculture) due to high demand and changing food preferences. The agriculture sector (including irrigation, livestock and aquaculture) is by far the largest water consumer using 69% of annual water withdrawals globally, industry (including power generation) accounts for 19% and households for 12%. Even though nearly 70% of the world is covered by water, we can only drink 2.5% of its freshwater– rest is saline and ocean-based. The growing competition over water is also worsening due to climate change. While all regions of the globe are affected, the impacts of climate change are highly variable and uneven– with some regions experiencing extraordinary periods of drought, others increasingly severe and frequent floods, while low-lying coastal areas face slower-onset impacts driven from accelerated sea-level rise. The common link, however, in this variability is how the impacts of climate change are felt increasingly through the medium of water. 

Behind these terrifying notions associated with water scarcity such as potential future conflicts, the daily sufferings of the poorest and the most marginalized to access safe services often go ignored. What’s concerning is the growing threat of water scarcity on the global universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) by 2030. Moreover, these impacts are intrinsically connected with public health. For example, if there is a decline in the availability of water supplies (such as dry wells or saline coastal aquifers), people will be forced to drink contaminated water (e.g. untreated surface water) leading to an increase in waterborne disease. The pollution of wells and flooding of latrines also increase the risk of a higher incidence of infectious diseases. Besides, a reduction in water availability makes hygiene practices more challenging and behavioural change campaigns, such as those organized to prevent coronavirus infections, less effective in areas where access to water is constrained by the changing climate. 

We cannot negotiate with the human rights of 2.2 billion people who lack safe drinking water. Neither with the 4.2 billion without access to adequate sanitation or 3 billion people who don’t have water and soap to wash their hands.  Much will depend on the right policies for better management of water resources which includes prioritizing the human rights to water and sanitation. There is also a greater need to build multi-stakeholder strategic partnerships to respond well to water scarcity. However, at the level of consumer, making just a few changes, such as avoiding foods that require a lot of water, watering the lawn less, fixing leaky plumbing, taking shorter showers can significantly reduce your water footprint. But of course, it is not all in your hands. Encouraging companies to disclose their water footprint and the sustainability of their operations will give you more information and will encourage responsible water use. Letting your government know that you care about water, both in quantity and quality, and want it to be used and managed effectively and sustainably, is an important step toward being a good global water citizen.

This article was originally published in the Expresso newspaper in Portugal.