The reality of water consumption

It’s not what you use, but what you eat or buy. We consume a lot more water than what we think.

Quynh Nguyen

I don’t think there’s anyone who identifies him- or herself as a water-waster. For the most part, people try to keep their tooth-brushing short, their dishwashing brief and the number of times they flush the toilet to a few times per day. Not much else one can do to reduce consumption, right?

Well, not quite. It’s not what you use, but what you eat or buy. According to Fred Pearce, author of “When the Rivers Run Dry,” it takes anywhere from 250 to 650 gallons of water to grow one pound of rice. I eat that much rice in a week. A pound of wheat? About 130 gallons. Two pounds of coffee? 2,650 gallons. A pound of cheese? About 650 gallons. But in terms of daily numbers, how much do you consume?

Pearce answers, “Turn these statistics into meal portions and you come up with more than 25 gallons for a portion of rice, 130 gallons for a two-egg omelet or a mixed salad, 265 gallons for a glass of milk, 400 gallons for an ice cream, 530 gallons for a pork chop, 800 gallons for a hamburger, and 1,320 gallons for a small steak.” And morning coffee? 592 cups of water to grow enough coffee to make one cup of brew, and 50 cups of water is needed to grow a teaspoonful of sugar.

It’s hard to argue against the consumption of food. Conservation politics should see a line where basic human survival is, right? It does, but more importantly it looks at the “footprint” being left by people for their “basic needs.” We’ve heard time and time again that the Earth cannot support our consumption-happy lifestyle. It’s not just the amount of trees being cut down or petroleum products used, but the amount of water required to manufacture a ton of widgets or to industrially grow food.

Most of the products we eat or buy are mass-produced or mass-farmed, with production concentrated in one place. That method of production concentrates a lot of environmental impact to a small area. Take cotton, for instance. Uzbekistan is the second-largest exporter of cotton in the world, and draws most of the water to produce its cotton from the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. So much, in fact, that the Aral Sea, the former destination of those rivers, is unable to replenish itself. The Aral Sea was the world’s largest lake, but now it has reduced to a quarter of its size. Years of diverting its flow into the desert cotton fields of Uzbekistan for two generations will dry it up completely. A ghost town sits about 25 kilometers away from its shores. Its former industry? Fishing.

Every country has its own version of the Aral Sea, whether it is in the form of dying rivers, drying wells, or dropping water tables. Chief cause? The drive to improve the economy while producing in an unsustainable way.

In California, where I am from, water is pumped from underground aquifers for municipal use, but at a rate faster than the rains can recharge them. This problem is worsened by sprawl and urban growth – low-density housing and high-density shopping areas consume massive amounts of water in a relatively small area.

Water tables in the Midwest are dropping to grow crops, but aren’t being replenished. Wetlands of the U.S. habitat to fish and exotic wildlife, are being drained for housing or agricultural land.

Outside of the United States, deserts are growing, wells are drying and people are being displaced by the permanent loss of water from places that they have inhabited for thousands of years.

In the northern states of India, irrigation projects failed to provide enough water for crops, so farmers procured water by drilling into the groundwater below. For the past 20 years, tapping into groundwater has yielded Indian farmers enough water to grow crops and sustain its population.

It won’t last long – the water table has dropped so low that towns have been abandoned for lack of water. The people who remain are rapidly trying to pump the remains of the water table out, to make as much profit as possible in order to move on. The same is true in China – the lives of about 100 million Chinese are fed by food grown with limited underground water. In about 20 more years, that source of water will run out – how will those 100 million people eat?

There are more disputes about water use rights than ever, serving as a threat to peace. As high as tension stands between Israel and Palestine, it is set to intensify with the impending water shortage between the two. Gaza, in short supply of water, sits downstream from Israel. Israel is faced with the choice of sharing water with downstream Gaza, or irrigating its own fields with that water. Self-preservation ensues, and the people of Gaza are drawing from its finite underground aquifers to supply its people with water. I can’t imagine the unrest to follow when that underground bank of water runs out.

Water, not oil, will be the chief resource to fight over in the years to come. More than ever, we have to take concern about where products are made, how they are made, and the process’ sustainability.

We hear talk about the end of oil and how much of our infrastructure and daily production flow relies on cheap gas. The fact is, we can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and have been doing so for the past year.

But we can’t live without water, and cannot continue living by squandering water resources for food and clothing.

As part of the international community, we also have to weigh in our two cents when other countries plan to build dams, dig into their underground water resources or divert their rivers. Ultimately, our two cents will be asked for when those sources of water run out.

Quynh Nguyen welcomes comments at [email protected]