This month’s newsletter seems to be all about food, but in fact what I wanted to speak about in this piece is water. In Australia the use and availability of water is an ongoing dialog of concern and conservation. For me, being from a country where fresh water is seemingly in endless supply, I have had to learn to adjust many of my habits to conserve the precious water that we have down under.   I have learned a lot from the public campaigns to conserve water, as well as the campaigns by friends and students who have taught me (and I certainly needed teaching) how to use less water in my daily life, and consider my “water footprint” wherever I go.
A “water footprint” is essentially how much water you, your community, your country, and our world uses each year. And from recent research the average water footprint is 1240m3 per person (or about half of an Olympic size swimming pool) per year globally. Australia is just slightly higher than that average at 1393m3, and Canada is a bit higher than that at 2050m3. I thought that these two countries could explain their higher than average numbers by the fact that they are both large land masses with high crop production (crop production makes up about 85% of our water footprint).   But, on further examination, I found –quite surprisingly – that for all its water conservation efforts, Australia, in comparison with countries like Italy, France, India, Thailand, Canada and the USA, uses the highest amount of domestic water. This doesn’t include agricultural water or industrial goods. Hmmmm….
So, when it comes to water conservation we have to look at little deeper. When looking to reduce your water footprint, one of the areas that is important to examine is the “virtual water content” of the goods and services that you are using. Because crop production is about 85% of our water footprint, looking at the foods we eat, how they are packaged, and how we purchase them is integral to reducing your water consumption, and conserving this vital resource. So, what is a virtual water content?
The virtual water content (VWC) of a product includes all the water that was used to grow, process, package, distribute, and stock the products that you buy every day. And some of VWC numbers are far beyond what I could have ever expected.   For instance, a single cup of coffee uses 140 litres of water in its VWC. Amazing. And meat products, because they have such a long production time, have an enormous VWC. A hamburger uses 2400 litres of water, and over 8000 litres of water is used to make a pair of leather shoes. So, our efforts to conserve water need to go beyond turning off the taps while brushing – and need to include an awareness of the VWC of the products we use, like cotton, beef, wheat, and even rice (which has the highest VWC of all crops).
Here are a few other products that we use every day, and their virtual water content:
1 200ml glass of milk = 200 litres
1 cotton t-shirt = 2000 litres
1 egg = 135 litres
1 glass of wine = 120 litres
1 slice of bread = 40 litres
So, what can we do to start reducing our water consumption? Well, it turns out we can do heaps through the choices we make – and those choices, incidentally, mirror the recommendations that we hear time and time again to enhance our own health and wellbeing.
1)      Choose foods that are less processed, with less packaging. An apple has a VWC of 70 litres, while apple juice is 190 litres. An orange has a VWC of 50 litres, while a glass of orange juice is 170 litres. A potato has a VWC of 25 litres, while a bag of potato chips is 185 litres. The less processed and packaged a food is, the lower its VWC, and the healthier it is for you. Shopping for fresh, locally produced foods, bringing your own bags, shopping in bulk for staples like rice and beans, and using your own reusable containers are all ways that you can reduce your VWC.
2)      Choose vegetarian. Animal-based products like eggs, dairy, meat and leather goods are extremely high in their VWC. Keep your own chickens for eggs, use dairy alternatives, eat a few days a week vegetarian and find leather substitutes – there are so many beautiful shoes, bags and coats these days that are animal free.
3)      Eat local, seasonal and organic. Less distribution, less warehousing, and less processing means a lower VWC. Grow your own as often as you can, join a community garden, choose bio-dynamically grown produce, and eat in season and not only will you reduce your water footprint, you will boost your local sustainable growers economy and improve your health.
4)      Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s not just food that has a VWC, all our consumer goods have a high energy and water demand. Remember that cotton t-shirt used 2000 litres of water to produce, and those leather shoes had a VWC of 8000 litres. Even a microchip uses 32 litres of water. Consider reducing your consumption of goods, buy great quality appliances that will last longer and are repairable – not just disposable. Reuse as often as you can, share with friends and family what you no longer need. And recycle packaging, compost food scraps, and consider purchasing items that are recyclable rather than those which are not. Interestingly, I have just met someone who is a ‘sustainable design consultant’, helping people to refine and expand their wardrobes without buying new clothes – often by remaking existing garments into something new and fresh. What an innovative way to reduce your water footprint!
So friends, this is a fairly new area of exploration for me, and one that I will continue to research. But, you might already be well informed and have some great tips and techniques to reduce your water footprint. I look forward to hearing your ideas, input and suggestions. And if you want to do a bit more research here are some sites that are helpful:
You can find out your country’s water footprint at
Visit the Institute for Water Education at:
Mind Body Messenger Newsletter 2010

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