Excerpted from the original article, “Water Tight,” by Emily Gertz in the University of Minnesota’s Momentum magazine.
The next time you stop off at a pub for a quick bite, think about this: It took around 630 gallons of water to make your burger. Your pint of beer used around 20 gallons. Manufacturing your blue jeans and t-shirt drank up about 1,218 gallons of water: 505 and 713 gallons, respectively.
Total: nearly 1,900 gallons of water – and that’s without fries on the side.
These quantities are the “water footprint” of each product: the total amount of freshwater used in its manufacture, including producing the ingredients.
For many products, that footprint is Paul Bunyan–sized: With water seemingly cheap and plentiful, there has been little incentive to try to keep it small.
But today, that’s changing. Even though much of the water we use for growing food and making products is replenished by natural hydrological cycles, freshwater will be less reliable and available in the coming century. Population growth is increasing both demand for water and pollution of potable supplies. At the same time, climate change is disrupting historical precipitation patterns, shrinking freshwater sources such as glaciers and snowpack, and creating unprecedented droughts and floods.
According to an analysis published in Nature in September 2010, the freshwater supplies of most of the world’s population are at high risk.
“If you look at the global distribution of people and the global distribution of threat levels to human water security, the places with the highly threatened water security represent about 80 percent of the world population, over four billion people,” says study co-author Peter McIntyre, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Limnology.
In the United States, a 2010 analysis by the consulting firm Tetra Tech for the Natural Resources Defense Council found that more than 1,100 counties – fully two-thirds of all counties in the lower 48 states – will contend with higher water risk by 2050 due to climate change alone. Fourteen states can expect extremely serious problems with freshwater supply, including Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, and California.
It’s not surprising, then, that businesses are increasingly considering their corporate water footprint. They encounter water risk – and opportunities to reduce it – at many stages of their operations, from growing crops to running retail stores. Factoring such risks into their present and future planning is helping companies present themselves as good environmental stewards to the public, and potentially reduce risks to their earnings from water scarcity.
“It’s often said that water is going to be the oil of the 21st century, in the sense of becoming an ever-more scarce commodity,” McIntyre says. “In the grand scheme of things, you can live without oil, but you can’t live without water. Water is fundamental for all life. And that’s certainly true for business as well.”
Continue reading on Momentum.
Sources: Natural Resources Defense Council, Nature.
Photo Credit: Adapted from “Lake Hume at 4%,” courtesy of flickr user suburbanbloke.