Why we really can’t “Take Long Showers and Still Save the World From Drought”
Blog post by Roopa Suppiah, Co-founder of Water Well-ness Project – Get free updates of new blog posts here.
If you haven’t read the article “How to Take Long Showers and Still Save the World From Drought” featured in the Huffington Post’s online blog, you definitely want to check it out. Do you agree with Adam Rose’s opinion that when working to address the dire world water crisis from an individual standpoint, there are times in our life that we should sacrifice (e.g. eat less hamburgers made from beef when possible) and other times where there’s no logical need (unnecessary to turn off the bathroom sink faucet when brushing your teeth)? Wasting food, purchasing leather products, and buying jeans that are dyed using poor practices are all no-no’s (i.e. big water consumers, so think before overindulging) whereas long showers, coffee, and carwashes aren’t so evil according to the article.
I agree with Rose that we should try to minimize our purchases or interaction with the most water-consuming activities (one step I’ve personally taken is to turn to a vegetarian diet, eating meat only very occasionally). Since beef requires anywhere from 15,000 to 70,000 L of water to produce a kg of meat, choosing a chicken burger (3,500 – 5700 L water/kg meat) in lieu of a beef burger every now and then isn’t such a bad idea. Currently, demands for beef (and dairy) remain high in Canada: 32% of Canadian farms are devoted to livestock raising, with about 60% of these farms specifically devoted to raising cattle!
Each choice matters
However, I believe that even the other choices, which are seemingly insignificant, are important to pay attention to. After all, our daily purchases or habits tell the world what should be manufactured, grown, or processed and how it should be done (high demand encourages industry to use “cheap” energy sources like coal to minimize costs and maximize revenue, or manufacture in countries where labor only costs them pennies).
Importantly, although only 10% of world water withdrawals are for domestic purposes, we drive the other 90% (70% for agriculture, 20% for industry like manufacturing and energy production) with our everyday choices.
I have a few examples to demonstrate.
If as a society, we keep demand for coffee so high (coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world, after oil), coffee plantations will continue expanding and will require more intensive farming. Sadly, forests will continue to be destroyed to make way. Water quality takes a direct hit because without complex root systems, nature has no way to prevent soil erosion and landslides into our water bodies. Rainfall levels also take a direct hit because less vegetation translates into less rainfall in the region. A choice we could make is to select coffee beans that are grown in international regions that aren’t facing extreme drought. This is a good decision for both the environment and your wallet.
For another example, if we make a conscious decision to choose a gas-guzzling car for our mode of transportation (when there might have been a more efficient choice), by default, we are consuming significant water with every litre of gas we pump into the tank: 2.8–6.6 L of water is required to produce each litre of gasoline. Where the crude oil is sourced to make gasoline also matters, since crude oil from Canadian oil sands requires at least 5.2 liters of water per liter of gasoline, for example.
And, just because only 10% of world water withdrawals are for domestic purposes, doesn’t mean we should ignore this sector. What would happen if children were not taught from a young age to turn off the tap when brushing their teeth? Wasting water will become a habit. A single person leaving the water running at “2.2 gallons per minute” (about 8 L) may not be so harmful, as Rose suggests in his article, but what if all children in Canada (about 6 million children younger than age 14) started doing so? 8L X 2 min to brush teeth X 2 times per day X 365 days X 6 million children = 70 billion L of water per year! This 70 billion L of water unnecessarily has to be retreated by our municipal water treatment plants, costing money (for taxpayers) and using even more water, in the form of virtual water.
The same thing goes with taking long showers. What would happen if every person in North America took an hour long shower because we all thought that this water is an insignificant amount? Water withdrawals for domestic purposes would increase significantly, with scarcities being created in other sectors.
The article also suggests that there’s no need to feel bad about drinking water and “don’t worry about all those glasses [of water] at a restaurant” when you are dining out. I definitely recognize the point here, but I just caution society from becoming apathetic about water conservation. If you don’t want water in a restaurant, let the waiter/waitress know rather than just allowing your cup to be filled up to the brim.
For java junkies and chocolate lovers
I appreciate that the author brought up the discussion around coffee and chocolate, which are well known as some of the most water intensive everyday foods out there. However, Rose suggests that we really don’t need to give up coffee or chocolate to live a water-conscious life and two particular points within the article require a bit of examination.
1. “If [coffee] was grown near a rainforest you probably shouldn’t feel too concerned about the water supply.”
Just because we call them rainforests, doesn’t mean they have lots of rain. Rainforests are not immune to climate change effects and water scarcity that most of the world is facing today. Brazil, which has 7 million square kilometers of Amazon rainforest, has been experiencing the “worst drought in history” this year. Acccording to climactic models described by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), by the year 2050, the Amazon is expected to have temperatures 2–3°C higher than at present and will see decreases in rainfall during dry months, which will lead to significant drying and ecosystem death. We must realize that our activities are causing these problems. The David Suzuki Foundation states that majority of coffee sold in Canada is grown in “open plantations” in countries like Mexico. To do this, immense areas of tropical and subtropical rainforest have been cleared. Without lush forests, rainfall levels fall because the water cycle is disrupted by a lack of evaporation of water, which plants are supposed to provide through transpiration.
2. “A lot of [chocolate] comes from regions with plenty of water.”
But this isn’t totally accurate. Cocoa for chocolate is grown in at least 30 different countries, including Brazil for example. And I just told you above how Brazil is, in fact, facing water problems. With climate change, over withdrawals from groundwater and surface water sources, and landscape transformations due to increased urbanization and deforestation for agriculture, water shortages are everywhere. The Center for Strategic and International Studies forecasts that by 2025 (just 10 years), 30% of the world will be facing serious water shortages. What’s worse is that some countries like Nigeria have enough water to grow crops like cocao for export, yet 50% of the population has no access to safe drinking water.
Water for more than just growing
Finally, I’ll mention that we can’t forget about the entire life cycle for products like coffee and cocao, when thinking about its water footprint. Water isn’t just involved with growing plants. Rather, water is needed for washing plants after harvesting, running the machines that grind and process the coffee or cocao, creating packaging, and transporting the products overseas, as examples.
So yes, I agree that we don’t have to give up coffee for good and take 2-minute long showers, but every decision we make does have impact on our world’s water. Water is connected by the global water conveyor belt and the global water cycle, so how much water you use (and the quality you leave your water in) is relevant to our water balance sheet.
My advice is to try to be as water-conscious as you can when making your daily decisions (although, hopefully don’t let it consume your every waking thought). Encourage and teach friends, children, or other family members to do so as well. Whether flushing the toilet in the house or making a purchase at the store, just remember that our decisions do speak volumes.
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