You are using more water than you can possibly imagine!

It is the year 2018, and you haven’t heard ever about the term ‘Covid’… You come back home from your Job on a Friday evening, tired, but equally excited to spend a long weekend with your family. The next morning, you and your siblings go to the largest shopping mall in the city to enjoy your day off. You didn’t need another t-shirt to find its way into your already overloaded wardrobe, yet you pick up one because you find it for dirt cheap at a discount store that was selling them for 70% off. After a fairly lengthy shopping spree, your sister claims she’s hungry, and so you all decide to sit at the shopping mall food court to grab quarter-pounder cheeseburgers with bacon, meatballs and soft drinks for each person in your entire family. While biting your way through that juicy cheeseburger — you praise your favourite fast-food chain for creating such a wonderful piece of delicacy at such an affordable price-point, and you wish you could eat more of this every day. On your way back, your brother decides to turn on the radio in the car, tuning in to the news at 4, suddenly you all hear someone talking about the alarming water crisis at Cape Town in South Africa. The keyword ‘Day Zero’ gets stuck in your head, and you start to feel guilty for wasting all the water that went into the washing machine only to wash a couple of socks and a pair of pants last night. 

Let’s face the harsh truth: running an almost empty washing machine wasn’t your only action in the last 24 hours that contributed negatively to the global water crisis.

While some environmental concerns get a ton of attention (and rightfully so), some critical ones have always been left out of the spotlight. The global overuse and wastage of arguably our most precious resource — freshwater — is one of them. Earth, the blue planet, from our elementary geography class as we know it, is 70% water and 30% land. However, you’d be surprised to know, that 97% of all that water is saltwater found in the oceans, which is unfit for most of our day to day task. Amongst the remaining 3% of the water that we have, 2% is locked out, frozen in the North & South pole, leaving the entire human AND animal population to survive on just the 1% of the earth’s freshwater: found in lakes, rivers, and underground reserves. Humans have historically relied on freshwater sources nearby to build their civilization around, but today, around 30% of the world population do not have constant running access to fresh water in their households. Multiple major cities around the world: New Mexico, Cairo, Tokyo, Melbourne, New Delhi, Jakarta, Beijing, Istanbul and Bangalore, all of which are important population centres, have seen their freshwater reserves depleted to below 20%. And who has not heard of the great California drought? Unfortunately, even after 5 years, US metropolitans like San Diego or Los Angeles still fall in the same bracket. 

I genuinely appreciate that you felt bad for wasting a few gallons of water just to wash a couple of clothes last night, this kind of action should always be avoided by all of us in near future. However, day-to-day water consumptions like drinking, washing (your car, clothes, dishes etc.) or toilet-flushing for every person on the planet make up only 8% of the global freshwater usage. The majority of the freshwater supply goes into industrialization, mining, and agriculture.

Remember those tasty cheeseburgers you and your siblings picked up post-shopping at your favourite fast-food chain? Well, nothing has more water embedded in it than meat. Just 1 pound of beef requires 7000 litres of water to be produced. On the other hand, that number translates to approx 500 litres for 1 pound of wheat. Most of this water is consumed in agricultural irrigation, cattle feed, and ‘irrigating’ to grow all those cattle feed. Not to mention, post-processing, cleaning of meat demands an absurd amount of water as well. Accounting for the other necessary ingredients like cheese, tomato slices, lettuce, sauce, bacon etc., and post-processing, an average hamburger (that you finished in merely 3 minutes) has ~3000 litres of freshwater usage behind the scenes. That small cup of latte from your neighbourhood coffee shop that you buy every morning on your way to work? You will be shocked to know that the water usage behind it upwards of 150 litres. A pound of farm fresh chicken? 1800 litres. A cup of orange or apple juice? 200 litres. That smooth pint of beer you just enjoyed with your friend last weekend? About 95 litres (ouch!).. 

Wait, we also need to talk about that nice, cheap t-shirt you bought at the mall today. Cultivating cotton, transforming it into cloth, and then cutting-stiching-dyeing it before finally shipping it to Canada from halfway around the world is a lengthy process. And, mother earth was forced to invest 7000 litres of her precious water to get that t-shirt into your hands. Still happy about it? 

Water is the new liquid gold!

Image Credits: UN Environment

The thing with water is that, unlike petroleum or gold, without water, we die. Thus, having enough fresh water at disposal is clearly a matter of survival for humanity. This is an issue that requires serious attention right now or else our ‘Day Zero’ may not be far off. Desalination is still an inefficient, expensive process so that is certainly no feasible option we can consider (on a mass scale) at the moment. Furthermore, the world economy is heavily dependant on the global agricultural chain and industrialism. It is not possible to allow this complex chain to collapse, hence, shutting down certain industries and owing to millions of job losses is no acceptable way either. No, I’m not implying that stopping eating fast-food or stopping eating entirely (!) will be a solution to this crisis. The world population is booming, and so is the need for freshwater every day. But, we need to keep in mind that what we have in stock is a finite resource, and we are in the habit of exceedingly misusing it as time goes by. All we need to do is be more efficient in using fresh water on a day to day basis. However, you do not need to be a stubborn environmentalist to protect the planet. Small actions go a long way, and small changes in our daily consumer habits can create a massive positive impact towards protecting this priceless resource. Veganism, can and should be inspired wherever possible. As humans, our love for meat since the very dawn of civilization is unquestionable. Thus, as an alternative, we can switch to plant-based meat for our daily diet. Cattle is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions and produces about 23% of all the methane in the atmosphere. But in the case of plant-based meat, it causes 90% lesser emission and uses 75-95% less water to produce. The promising plant-based meat alternative industry has already established itself as a viable alternative, and products from big players from this market like Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods have satisfied customers around the globe as their popularity continues to rise. Ecovative Design’s mushroom (mycelium) based bacon has garnered the attention of critics around the globe. Aside from changing our food habits, we also need to reconsider our rave interest in fast fashion. Once we refrain from buying a product we do not really need, we are actually doing good to the environment as well as our pockets.

References:

[1] Los Angeles Times. 2021. To make a burger, first you need 660 gallons of water …. [online] Available at: <https://www.latimes.com/food/dailydish/la-dd-gallons-of-water-to-make-a-burger-20140124-story.html&gt; [Accessed 19 April 2021].

[2] theatlantic.com. 2021. What’s in Your Burger? Lots of Water, It Turns Out – The Possibility Report. [online] Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/vmware-2017/burger-water/1802/&gt; [Accessed 19 April 2021].

[3] World Economic Forum. 2021. This is how much water is in your burger. [online] Available at: <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/this-is-how-much-water-is-in-your-burger/&gt; [Accessed 19 April 2021].

[4] Heggie, J., 2021. Day Zero: Where next?. [online] Science. Available at: <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-south-africa-danger-of-running-out-of-water&gt; [Accessed 19 April 2021].

About the author…

Tahmid Al Hafiz (he/him)

I breathe bohemian air and nurture avant-garde within the boundary of bricks.

A passionate Gooner, environmentalist, travel-freak and a firm believer of the fact that people with great passion can make the impossible happen.

Edmonton, AB, Canada | alhafiz@ualberta.ca

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