In matching royal-blue shirts and caps, thousands of Chinese students are forming human dragons across Beijing. This choreography is taking place in celebration of World Water Day, 22 March, and in honour of the Year of the Water Dragon, the current year of the Chinese zodiac. While a year such as this symbolizes growth and optimism, the young people forming the human dragons are drawing attention to an urgent and troubling matter: a worldwide water crisis. Water scarcity is possibly the world’s most pressing environmental issue.

The composition of the undulating dragon can only be appreciated when viewed aerially, from a distance. From close up, one sees a throng of young activists. It is just this bigger picture we need to gain, to fully grasp the potential damage of our “water footprint”. We need to understand exactly how much water is hidden in the goods we consume every day and find ways to reduce our consumption. The theme for World Water Day is “The World is Thirsty Because We Are Hungry”.

Thirst, a global, Beijing-based NGO, is working with youth to raise awareness about water, in particular “invisible water”: potable water that is consumed daily, yet concealed in the production of our clothes, gadgets, food and cars. At every step of agricultural and industrial production, clean water is used and often in surprising disproportion to the end-product: 1 kg of beef requires 15,000 litres of water; one pair of jeans, 11,000 litres of water; a single cup of coffee, 140 litres; and a burger 2,400 litres.

Fresh water is essential to life, and yet we are using it faster than it can be replenished. We are using it in all sorts of places we don’t think about – from our clothing, to our food and to our electronics. When you ask people how much water to takes to make a pair of jeans or a cell phone, they answer in the single digits. The reality is that the amount of water required for a single shopping trip for a pair of jeans, a T-shirt and a burger is enough for 8,000 days of drinking water. This is why Thirst is rolling out its global water awareness campaign: to educate people to use water sustainably and to consume water-sustainable products.

As a result of Thirst’s activities, young protestors are signing Thirst’s declaration to become ambassadors for water and are uploading their photos to create a virtual water dragon. They are going to be hard hit by water issues. While water is tied to economic growth and people’s health around the world, the People’s Republic of China has a fifth of the world’s population but only 7% of its water. A person living in the China has access to only one quarter of the global average per capita. This shortage causing drought and environmental damage may also compel people to desert their homes. According to estimates, water scarcity costs the country RMB 37 billion per year.

It is the young who will be most affected by water availability in the future. Thirst commissioned market research to compare the attitudes and awareness of youth in the United Kingdom, USA and China. Chinese youth were found to be the most knowledgeable, most likely to reduce their water consumption, to talk to their friends about the issue and to advocate online.

Let them lead the way, in dragon-form, as an example to the rest of the world and encourage us all to reconsider our water footprint.

Author: Mina Guli is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of THIRST. She joined the community of Young Global Leaders at the World Economic Forum in 2010.

Pictured: As a global water awareness campaign initiated by the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum, Thirst gathered a thousand students from China University of Mining Technology (Beijing) on the eve of World Water Day to form a human water dragon.

About Thirst
Thirst is a global, water awareness campaign which harnesses social media and technology to create a youth movement by inspiring millions of consumers around the world to generate meaningful change as to how water is viewed and consumed.

Thirst is an initiative by the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum: a multistakeholder community of more than 700 exceptional young leaders who share a commitment to shaping the future. The Young Global Leaders represent the future of leadership, hailing from all regions of the globe and representing business, government, civil society, arts and culture, academia and media, as well as social entrepreneurs.

Thirst is an NGO with its head office located in Beijing. Operations are run through a registered body (Thirst Ltd t/a THIRST in Hong Kong SAR), a Wholly Foreign Owned Entity in China.