Water Scarcity And Your Virtual Water Consumption ?!

A renewable resource is a natural resource with the ability to reproduce through biological or natural processes and replenished with the passage of time. Renewable resources are part of our natural environment and form our eco-system. One such resource is water. Water is able to regenerate and is part of our natural environment. However water may only be considered a renewable resource when carefully controlled usage, treatment, and release are followed.  (www.en.wikipedia.org, 2012)

UN research indicates that we are facing a serious water scarcity problem.

  • Approximately 700 million people in 43 countries suffer as a result of water scarcity.
  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions.
  • With the existing climate change scenario, almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa. In addition, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water-stressed countries of any region


So if water is meant to be renewable why are we in this problem?

The reality is that water in our current societal context is not really renewable because we have compromised the ability of the water resources to regenerate.  Water affects all of us all the time and in every way possible. For the purposes of readers (assuming that most readers/ people with access to the internet of this post have easy and regular access to potable and piped water); water scarcity doesn’t just impact on how many baths or showers we take or how often we flush the toilet or whether we drink bottled or tap water or if you have a low flow shower head etc

Water is an integral and critical component of the environment and is therefore fundamentally important for the survival of humankind and society as we know it (not meaning to be alarmist…. but it is true).

“Water is one of the primary barometers of climate change: A rise in sea-levels, flooding, and extreme storms combined with general water stress and more severe and frequent droughts will escalate crises in municipal infrastructure, requiring continual upgrades for water purification, stormwater drainage, and sewage treatment, all of which will dramatically raise the price of water at the retail level. ( Bond, 2011) 

It has been predicted by the Water Resources Group that the global demand for water will outstrip supply by 40% by 2030 (CDP, 2011), this indicates that something is very wrong with the way that we are using our water resource considering the fact that water, despite being a finite resource is a renewable resource.  Water use has increased exponentially and has been driven by increasing water demand from industrialization, economic development and population growth. This has resulted in increasing competition for our water resources, which has resulted in increased tensions and challenges around the management, allocation and sustainable use of water resources.

In many instances the water needs of large-scale agriculture and industry end up competing for the water that essential for the sustaining local communities and ecosystems. Ecosystems are an essential component of the hydrological cycle as they are not only reliant on water for survival but also provide a key role in water purification and provision, thus ecosystems maybe seen as nature’s natural “green” infrastructure and service providers.  In addition ecosystems also provide us with the very important ability to adapt to climate change impacts and environmental degradation. It is therefore obvious that we need healthy and functioning ecosystems in order to ensure that we have a sustainable water source.

We all know that we need water to survive however the fact that water contributes in some way to the production and use of everything we consume and use is often overlooked. Everything that forms part of our lifestyle and society has a virtual water value. Virtual water refers, in the context of trade, to the water used in the production of a good or service (www.en.wikipedia.org, 2012). It should however be noted that specific measure of virtual water can be more or less depending on regional context, climatic conditions and agricultural practice. The virtual-water content of a product, commodity, good or service may be defined as the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product was actually produced”. (www.en.wikipedia.org, 2012). This definition is important as many of the goods and service produced in water poor areas are consumed in water rich areas, resulting in the true water value not being fully considered or accounted for by the consumers.

For example, a liter of potable water in “water-rich” Scandinavia is unlikely to be as precious/valuable as a liter of potable water in water-scarce Namibia (CDP 2011). Consequently the 70 liters of water it takes to make 100 grams of apple may have more value in Namibia than it does in Scandinavia. This combined with the fact that a large proportion of the food you eat, the clothes you wear and the goods and services that you consume often not produced locally increased the virtual water value of the product.

An example of this would be 100% organic cotton t-shirt has a virtual water value 2700 liters! The 2700 liters mean a great deal more to someone living in an arid environment and having to draw water from a communal well than it does for someone living an a water rich area who has access to piped potable water.

Examples of virtual water values are:

  • 2400 liters of water to make 100 grams of chocolate.
  • 70 liters of water to make 100 grams of apple
  • 5000 liters of water to make 500 grams of paper
  • 2499 liters of water to make 150 grams of burger
  • 4650 liters of water to make 300 grams of beef (about one steak)


Our economy and society are dependent on water and the virtual water associated with the production of goods and services. If the cost of water went up so would the cost of all our goods and services. How we use and pollute our water is therefore a critical issue especially since the amount of water that is clean and drinkable is steadily decreasing due to pollution (UNEP WHO 2012) arising from our unsustainable use of water and the inability of ecosystems to effectively purify water due to environmental degradation.

In the UK, for example, “it has been estimated that two-thirds of all the water that its population of 60 million people consume actually comes embedded within the imported food they eat, the clothes they wear and industrial or chemical goods they purchase. The result is that local water management issues affecting disadvantaged communities around the world may be significantly exacerbated and influenced by consumption patterns in more affluent countries.(CDP 2011)

How are we, a society that is entirely dependent on water, who’s wasteful and inefficient use is the reason we are in this problem meant to respond to the water resource challenges? Especially as the water problem will undoubtedly result in associated environmental, economic, political and social problems?

Simply stated we need to change the manner in which we consume and produce goods and services. As consumers we need to question and refuse to consume products and services with high virtual water values. Also we need to recognize that not everything is a necessity and we can do without some/ a great many of the extras and luxuries that we consume.

We can’t change our habits overnight (though it would be great if we did….), instead we need to make a difference where we can and build up to making the big changes that we need to make in our consumption and production patterns.

A few pointers to help you reduce your water and virtual water consumption:

Water reduction tips for dummies:

  • Shorter bath and shower time
  • Close tap while brushing teeth
  • Recycle water in the home.
  • Plant indigenous plants in your garden
  • Check and fix any leaks in your home

 Virtual water reduction tips for dummies:

  • Buy local and seasonal produce grow your own veggies
  • Eat less meat: become vegetarian, meatless Mondays etc
  • Eat less chocolate …(difficult I know….)
  • Waste less
  • Reuse and recycle organic products like paper, cotton etc
  • Don’t be a slave to fashion: Buy good quality and timeless clothing that can take you from season to season reducing the need to keep replacing your clothes etc
  • Download a virtual water application to help you make smarter choices.

Patrick B (2011) Durban’s Water Wars, Sewage Spills, Fish Kills and Blue Flag Beaches.

UNEP WHO 2012 Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation 2012

 CARBON DISCLOSURE PROJECT (2011):CDP Water Disclosure South Africa Report 2011: Assessing the value of water

UN Water For Life Decade http://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/

Water and Ecosystem Infrastructure

(After the previos post about Waterless Jeans I though it a good idea to provide some context of the issue of water and water as a resource etc.. so here goes!)

Demand on Water Resources (Undited Nations Population Division)

A few facts related to Water and Ecosystem Infrastructure.

  • 75% of our natural resources are over utilized. This has far reaching impacts for our ecosystems and economies. An example is the Aral Sea. Aral Sea was 4thlargest fresh water system.
    • It is 10% of its original size.
    • Pollution and over utilization of the water yield of the lake has resulted in the Aral Sea no longer being able to provide Ecosystem Services such as water and fish and resulting in economic hardship and unemployment
    • Approximately 60 000 fishermen have lost their jobs.  
    • 50% of South Africa’s water extractions come from surface water resources such as lakes, rivers and dams. This has significant implications for the development of the country, the health of water resources as well as water users.

Aral Sea: not much water left.

Ecosystem Infrastructure refers to the services that are provided by natural ecosystems. These ecosystem services include servicessuch as water purification; flood control, recreational amenities, and climate stabilization. Ecosystem services may be considered as “free” services provided by nature and are particularly important when looked at within the context of services that support economic and social development.

Linkages between ecosystem services and human well being (www.maps.grida.no)

I recently attended a presentation on the importance of ensuring integrated planning the provision of water services. The presentation linked water as a natural resource critical for economic and social development with the importance of ecosystem infrastructure such as watersheds. An example of ecosystem infrastructure in water service provision would be the financial cost savings that are possible through the effective development and management of dams and watersheds in relation to dam siltation.

  • The siltation of a dam involves the gradual build up of silt behind the dam wall. Siltation often negatively affects the health and usefulness of a dam and results in a reduction of water yield from the dam.
  • The average cost of building a dam is (approximately) R20 per cubic meter of water stored.
  • The average cost of de-silitation is (approximately) R8 per cubic meter
  • If a watershed is managed in a sustainable manner the risks and costs posed by siltation of dams are preventable.
  • Thus it makes financial sense to prevent siltation through the management of the ecosystem infrastructure associated with water and dams. This can be done through watershed management and the management of land uses within watersheds.
  • Some examples of watershed management initiatives that increase water yielded and prevent erosion and therefore siltation are: alien clearing, sustainable land use practices, erosion prevention etc

The concluding message from the presentation was; it is essential to ensure that the integrity and health of our water resources and associated ecosystem infrastructure are maintained in order to enable sustainable development and a transition to a green economy. It is therefore fundamental to recognise ecosystem services and infrastructure as strategic and fundamental element of infrastructure development and service provision.

This also stresses that recognition that a key step towards incorporating ecosystem infrastructure into the infrastructure planning and development processes is required to facilitate and support sustained and healthy economic growth and a transition to a greener economy. In addition, the recognition of the strategic importance of ecosystem infrastructure in infrastructure provision and development planning is central to the debate surrounding the value of ecosystem services and elements. The value of such services and resources need to be looked at from an integrated point of view as opposed to merely being considered as resources to be exploited.

We need to change the manner in which we value and use our natural resources.

For more informtaion on the above topics:

Aral Sea on Wikipedia

Millenium Ecosystem Assessment

WHO fact file


Green Fashion, Educated Choices and Levi’s Waterless Jeans?!

"Levis Water<less" jeans

I was looking into what makes an item of clothing green/ greener/ good for the environment/ sustainable etc… and came across “Levis Waterless Jeans“. My first thought was “Greenwash.” My greenwash train of thought focused on the following issues;

What about:

  • The water and energy used in the production,packaging, transport and sale of the jeans
  • The monoculture cotton plantations and the impacts on biodiversity and water
  • The (very high) possibility that the denim is produced from Genetically Modified (GM) cotton
  • The dyes that go into the dying of the denim. What dyes do they use, what are they made of etc….
  • The water used to wash and dispose of the jeans….

My list could go on forever……

But then I decided to have a look at what Levi’s said made their jeans waterless and therefore better for the environment… and these are my thoughts:

  • It seems that even though the product is not entirely green or perfectly waterless…. it does at least start to engage with the issue of water and sustainability. Maybe “WATER<LESS” is a bit of an exaggeration in this regard?
  • Hopefully the product will start to get customers asking the right questions about ethical and green fashion and consumption.
  • The campaign provides some facts and figures about the production process and also links the issue of water conservation with people who live in water scarce areas.
  • The campaign did not adequately tackle the issue of monoculture, biodiversity and water. This is a key flaw in the campaign as the production of the cotton for the denim is a very large part of the water use debate as is the impact of monoculture agriculture on water catchements, ecosystems and our water resources. One should however note that Levis has aligned with the Better Cotton Initiative. However, I was unable to determine wether the initiative supports GM Cotton or not. The biodiversity impacts and GM issue are a key issue for me!
  • The Levis Waterless Jeans are one product in the Levis range… what about the other products?
In conclusion, I think that the Levi’s Waterless Jeans are (for me) not the amazing eco-fashion answer to eco-friendly jeans, though they are a step in the right direction and will (hopefully) get consumers asking questions about issues of sustainability, sustainable consumption and how our consumption patterns affect the natural environment.
It is very important that we consider all the aspects related to our consumption patterns and don’t simply buy into every headline and green marketing campaign. We may not be perfect but every informed decision we make is a step in the right direction.

Levis Water<less jeans lifecycle

*Please note that this is my opinion and that I am not endorsing any brand or product.