The next time you casually turn on a tap, fill a kettle and make a cup of coffee, take a moment to consider how important water is to your life. While we are aware of how much we use for drinking, showering and doing laundry, what may be less obvious is the water used to produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the lives we lead.
That cup of coffee, for example, requires 140 litres of water to grow, process and transport enough beans for a single cup, according to UN Food and Agriculture Organization figures.
Although water may not be on our minds when we visit the grocery store, this valuable resource is a key ingredient in most of the food in our shopping baskets.
Agricultural irrigation accounts for 70% of water use worldwide. As the chart shows, meat and poultry are the most water-intensive food products, along with nuts. One kilo of beef requires on average 15,415 litres of water – the vast majority of it used to grow the animal feed.
Fruit, by comparison, is less water intensive: one apple uses 70 litres. But when turned into juice the water footprint rises to 190 litres for a single glass.
But agriculture isn’t the only industry that is heavily reliant on water. A 2017 report shows that in a single year the fashion world consumed enough water to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. And the industry’s water use looks set to increase 50% by 2030.
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Making a simple T-shirt can take 2,720 litres of water, and a single pair of jeans requires almost 10,000 litres to manufacture.
But the water used to produce our food and clothing represents a drop in the ocean compared to industrial water use. According to Greenpeace, the world’s coal-fired power plants consume the equivalent of 1 billion people’s water needs, rising to 2 billion if all of the planned power plants begin operating.
A future with less water
As the planet doesn’t have an endless supply of water, the volume currently used by industry, manufacturers and consumers is not sustainable, particularly as the global population is increasing. According to the World Resources Institute, there will be 9.8 billion on earth by 2050, drastically increasing pressure on existing resources.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019 ranks water crisis as the risk with the fourth largest impact. Exploitation of existing water supplies, a growing population and the impact of climate change are setting the world on course for a future where demand for water will exceed supply. Such a future could bring conflict and hardship as agriculture, energy, industry and households compete for water.
The Forum’s Global Water Initiative aims to place water use at the centre of economic growth planning. Working with public-private coalitions, the initiative aims to encourage a new generation of technological solutions that can be scaled up to meet the water and sanitation targets outlined in UN Sustainable Development Goal 6: to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
The scale of the world’s water challenge is immense, especially considering that 844 million people still don’t have clean water to drink and 2.3 billion don’t have access to basic sanitation facilities such as toilets.