Save water. For the world and her people

One out of nine people in the world don’t have access to clean water, and one in three don’t have a real toilet.

As part of the sustainability series, let’s talk about water.
When it comes to water and travelling, I have two major topics for you: the water footprint of the food that is travelling to us, and the water-related issues in the countries we visit.

We all know that saving water is increasingly important, with resources shrinking, consumption rising, and climate change. Rainwater is acidifying, groundwater is sinking. The sea is rising, lakes are drying, and landscapes are turning into deserts. 

The average German uses about 130 liters of water per day for drinking, showering, washing dishes, toilet flush and so on. Tap water in all of Germany is perfectly safe and of good quality (often even better that bottled water)
So let’s assume we all already turn off the tap while shaving, soaping, brushing our teeth and so on. We use a dishwasher, as they nowadays use less water than doing the dishes by hand. There are some amazing things we can further do: If you like to drink cold water, you may have noticed that you waste some water while you wait for the tap water to have turn cold. Fill it in a bottle or jug instead, put it in the fridge, problem solved!
Collect rainwater for your plants. If we’re innovative and just about to build or remodel, how about a rainwater toilet flush?
You could also invest in one of these cool toilets that probably originated in Japan (they always have really interesting ideas for their toilets) that have the sink on top, so the water you use to wash your hands is reused to flush the next time. But if we’re not renovating the bathroom at the moment, another simple solution is to put a bucket in the shower. It collects some of the water, and you can use that to flush your toilet.

But there’s more to that.

The virtual water footprint. In addition to these 130 liters, we have to take into account the water that is used for us elsewhere: in the production of food, clothes, and other consumer items. And with this, we have additional 5300 liters per day and person on our account.
70 percent of the world’s water is used in food production, so this is where we can effectively tackle saving water!

The production of one apple uses about 70 liters of water. An avocado needs 500 liters. According to the organization Wateraid, the ground coffee for just one cup needs 140 liters, so here’s another reason to quit coffee. This amount is three to four times higher than for a cup of tea, according to the Huffington Post even ten times higher (oh, do I feel good about myself right now… but then of course, there are other issues with tea). Animal products use more water than plant foods, which makes sense, as the animals need these plants as food first. So while for 250 g of potatoes you need only 225 l of water, for the same weight of pork, it’s 1200 liters. Want some more examples?
For one egg, 200 liters of water are needed, the same as one banana. To make one liter of milk, 1000 liters of water are used. The two worst foods when it comes to water usage are beef and chocolate: While beef needs about 15 000 liters of water per kilo, one kg of cocoa needs 27 000 liters! Now that’s a number! As we tend to eat more meat by weigh than chocolate, I still think quitting meat first and working on eating less chocolate next was the right decision.
The Huffington Post made a nice overview of different foods and which to choose from a water-footprint point of view (beer or wine? Cinnamon or peppermint?), so check out the link below.
The problem with these foods is that so many of them are imported. In central and Northern Europe, the rainwater is enough for our crops. But we tend to import exotic fruits, nuts, and animal products from dry countries, where all of the fields need to be watered. This is one of the reasons why it makes sense to buy seasonal, local food.

But of course, other products contribute to our virtual water footprint. For example, 1300 liters of water have gone into one phone. 20 000 into a computer. 6000 to 12 000 into a pair of jeans (depending on which source you want to trust). And ten into every single piece of standard sized paper. I really have to go digital! I recently downloaded the Kindle App to my phone as I ran out of books. My family and friends have been telling me to switch to e-books pretty much since they were developed (it’s not only saving water, but space in my backpack, and all the weight I now don’t have to carry; plus, I might not have a book when my train is late, but I always have my phone with me). I’ve been doing online banking for a couple of years now, having a folder I never look at on my computer instead of high stacks of paper in my shelves. And since I came to Thailand, the only thing I’ve printed out were the documents I need to hand in at the university. Can we please all follow Estonia’s example and do our elections online and accept online applications? I’m starting to read my summaries for studying off the screen instead of paper. I use online tickets for busses, trains and planes. For most people, this is a matter of convenience (less physical stuff), but hey, it also saves water!

Speaking of that pair of jeans. When it comes to fashion, I don’t even know where to begin. Famous British journalist Lucy Siegle covers pretty much all of the environmental and social issues linked to fast fashion in her book “To Die For” and I highly recommend it. Halfway through, I knew I could never buy new clothes with a clear conscience again.
First, there is cotton. Cotton takes up 2% of global crop land, but 11-12% of global pesticides, by the way. But this is about the water, and to make one ton of the fluffy white balls that eventually turn into our clothing, 7000-9000 m³ of water are used. Then it needs to be turned into fiber, the fiber into garments, these need to be dyed, and finished (so that the color doesn’t come out in contact with air, skin and water). The cotton alone that is needed for one T-shirt (about 250 g) uses up 2700 liters, and for a pair of jeans (1 kg of cotton) 11 000-12 000. But by the end of the production, scientists say that for an average T-shirt 20 000 liters of water have been used.
The cotton production has caused desertification around the Aral Sea, and now drinking water in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, contains more than 6 g of salt per liter (4 times higher than WHO recommends) in some places.

Dying the fabric uses a lot of water, too, and many toxic chemicals. As the dyehouses are often located in developing countries, where 90 percent of waste water goes into rivers and streams without any treatment, the fashion industry is just another reason why the people there get sick from the water they use to cook, drink, and wash themselves. Efficient dyehouses use approximately 60 l of water to dye one kilogram of cotton, but most of them are more inefficient and use about 800 liters. Only 10% of that wastewater that contains hazardous chemicals, is filtered first, before it runs into the rivers.
One fourth of China’s population drinks contaminated water daily, and dying the clothes for the Western world is one of the reasons. In the Guangdong region, the main water source for the inhabitants is the Mao Zhou River. The Fuan textiles mill discharges 22 000 tons of dye water into it every day, and in an investigation back in 2006, no attempts of treating that water first were found.
2.5 million people in this region alone have access to contaminated drinking water only, and a mere 2% of the cities treat wastewater.
It’s not just cotton. Producing leather also needs a lot of water, so the tanneries are normally built by riversides. These leather factories produce 20-30 million liters of waste water per day. In it, we find manganese, chromium, sulphur, lead, copper and other toxic chemicals, and only 9 million liters are treated before going into the rivers. In the Indian state of Kanpur for example, where many tanneries are located along the Ganges, sings have been put up to say that ground water is hazardous, but there is no other source of water for the people.

This brings me to the other big issue: water management, or rather, the lack thereof, in developing countries. If we’re staying in a fancy hotel, we don’t see that. We read that we should put our towels on the hanger if we don’t need them washed every single day, to save water. But we take short showers, too, so is it really that much of a problem?
It is.
Two billion people in the world rely on ground water. But with climate change, and altered rainfall patterns, the water now often just evaporates or flows off the dry surfaces, and the groundwater is shrinking. By the way, it takes about 100 years for the rain to actually turn into ground water.
At least one third of the world’s population suffers from water shortage.
Valuable water is wasted in the tourism industry, and to produce clothes, food and animals just for export.
I became aware of many of the problems in Nepal, where we had a water tank for the shower and sink, but it was made of plastic and exposed to sunlight, thus an optimal breeding ground for bacteria. The waste water from the toilet went underground, but the shower and sink went into an open drain, that sometimes turned green, blue or red when we washed newly acquired clothes. In the winter, the tank wasn’t always full, and then we went to the river with the family we lived with to do our laundry. And we showered in the backyard, with buckets filled from the groundwater pump. I guess that’s when I switched to natural soap and laundry detergent.

844 million people, and 31% of schools have no clean water. 

Every day, 800 children die from diarrhea that is caused by contaminated water and poor hygiene (no access to a toilet), and the Tropical Medicine and Health magazine estimates that the total number of diarrheal deaths could be decreased by one third if everybody had access to clean water at all times.
We Westerners know how that it is important to wash our hands after we’ve used the toilet, before we eat, when we had contact with sick people, especially as doctors, and so on. And we take a daily shower for granted. But thousands of people have to make the choice between using that little water they have for washing or for drinking. Which would you choose?
And this water often isn’t safe for drinking. Sometimes it isn’t even safe for personal hygiene.
This article is turning into a book if I don’t watch out… Please follow the links below, especially Water Aid has some really interesting and shocking reports, and I’ve found myself donating to this and other organizations while doing the research for this blogpost…

Just one more thing, to end on a positive note:
How to get safe drinking water in developing countries.
Find the water refill stations that have 20 liter bottles or UV-filters. Use your own travel-sized little filter (I use a SteriPen that kills bacteria and viruses with UV light, but there are also some that actually filter out visible dirt as well). Boil the water first (most hotels and hostels have a kettle, and it will cool down over night). Buy big canisters and refill your bottle with them, just make sure the seal is still intact. And if you’re unsure if they used tap water or not, refuse the ice in your drink.

Please let me know if you would like to read more about: how we pollute or waters with waste, the infamous “fatbergs” in Britain’s wastewater drains, water shortages, or contaminated water in developing countries? Or maybe you’d like to read more about why I feel bad about every piece of fast fashion I’ve ever bought?

To make a change, here are two great organizations you could support:


previous posts of the series: sustainable travel, plastic waste, food at home, food abroad

Lucy Siegle
To Die For – Is Fashion wearing Out The World?
Fourth State Publishing, 2011
Paperback 352 pages
ISBN: 978-0007264094


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