Saturday, May 31, 2008

OPAWTY? - Virtual Water

Saving the world one cup of coffee at a time.
The June issue of Discover Magazine had an article about virtual water (Better Planet: Virtual Water..., by Thomas M. Kostigen). Virtual water is the amount of water it took to provide a service or item for you - from start to finish. For example, it is estimated that it takes about 1,900 gallons of water to put that one pound steak on your grill and about 53 gallons to put a single egg in your refrigerator.

I'm not sure why these are virtual gallons of water. I am pretty sure I've never consumed a glass of virtual water, but then again who really knows what is in all those bottles we consume. Maybe it is virtual water and that is why we have to pay so much for it.

From the article I learned that like your carbon footprint, you have a virtual water footprint. The average person on earth has a virtual water footprint of about 328,000 gallons of water a year. That is the number of physical gallons of water a person uses directly in a year plus the number of virtual gallons used in a year to produce the food and goods a person consumes and uses. In the United States the virtual water footprint of the average person is about 656,000 gallons a year while in China the average is only about 185,000 gallons - which is good since there are so many more Chinese. If their footprint were as large as ours, they would be very thirsty.

Why are we talking about virtual water? Because we, who live on a water based, water rich world are running out of fresh water. The virtual water concept is supposed to allow us to make better choices. The author, Thomas Kostigen, makes the point that if each of us avoided wasting just one cup of coffee a day we could save enough virtual water to give two gallons of water a day for a year to each of the 1.1 billion people who currently don't have access to clean water. Remember, it is not just the physical water in the cup, it is also the virtual water used to grow the coffee bean, roast it, ship it, etc. Luckily I don't drink coffee so I don't have to carry the guilt of ignoring a billion thirsty people. It took me years to get over the trauma I caused the starving Chinese people when I didn't eat my vegetables as a child.

If the concept of virtual water catches on you can bet it will be added to the content list of packaged food. 180 calories, 0 grams of trans fat and 319 gallons of virtual water.

Let's get real. Are dwindling supplies of fresh water a problem? Yes! But not because we are wasting water on unconsumed coffee. And not because we eat too much meat and not enough grain. The problem is there are too many of us. As the Chinese become more prosperous their virtual water usage will go up. If their virtual water usage even rises to the current world average they are going to be in serious trouble. Likewise, we could cut our virtual water footprint in half, but if our population doubles in 100 years, as might happen, we have put off our problem, but not solved it.

When we are talking about a global water shortage on a water rich planet, people should take note. The problem is not too little water, it is too many people.

Over Populated - Are We There Yet?

You can check your virtual water footprint at

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