Virtual water and water footprint
How much water do we consume directly and indirectly?
22 Mar 2020
Food wastage also implies wastage of water (Image Source: WOTR)

Climate change and water scarcity in India

The world is today facing an unprecedented water crisis, both in access and availability. Cape Town in South Africa reached ‘day zero’ water status in 2018. India, according to the NITI Aayog, is facing the worst water crisis in its history, with an estimated 600 million people having to deal with high to extreme water scarcity.

Villagers in Maharashtra waiting for tankers (Image Source: Digambar Sonwane)

Climate change, where 2°C temperature rise is expected by the end of the 21st century, is adding to the water scarcity problem with increasingly erratic rainfall patterns affecting runoff and the groundwater recharge cycle. This statistic is just the tip of the iceberg, and the situation is projected to become even worse if appropriate actions are not taken.

To be more responsible and sensible in water use, virtual water and water footprint are very useful concepts for an individual and community to deal with water problems.

Virtual water and water footprint

We as an individuals use water directly and indirectly. For example, since morning, we use water directly to flush our toilet, brushing and bathing, washing and cleaning, gardening, drinking etc.  More than this, we also use and consume a large quantity of water indirectly in form of products or goods used to wear, eat, use, and buy. All these products, goods and services take water to make. For example, the newspaper we read in the morning takes an ample amount of water to produce the paper from the raw material in the factory and then in printing and overall transport to reach your home.

While reading the paper in the morning, we are used to taking a cup of tea. To make a cup of tea, physically it require less than a cup of water. However, when we consider the amount of sugar, tea, and milk, which we add, although not physically visible, takes up 35 litres of water per cup, while one cup of coffee takes 140 liters of water to prepare. All this water, which is invisible in such items and goods is known as “Virtual Water”. Every product we consume contains virtual water. In 1993, Professor John Allan (2008 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate), demonstrated the concept of virtual water which measures how water is embedded in the production and trade of food and consumer products.

“Water footprint” is a useful tool to assess the amount of virtual water getting used/consumed in making different goods and services.

Water needed to produce these items (Image Source: FAO)

 We can measure the water footprint of a product like jeans pants, a crop produce, even organisations, individuals or/and family, company or firm, and any state or country to know how much water, directly and indirectly, they consume or take to make it.

Calculating water footprint

There are several online tools with different assumptions on water-use. Lets us try to calculate individual water footprint as an exercise to understand our water consumption; it will take maximum five minutes. Click here, check your water footprint, compare it with your friends and colleagues, and discuss it. You will observe our lifestyle, food habits and water-use practices are key in deciding our water footprints.

You will find that the concept of virtual water and water footprints are immensely useful for:

  • Understanding where and how we can save more water, for direct as well as indirect use.
  • Knowing what amount of water is required to make the products, goods, crops, and services.
  • Planning water security, how we can plan for reducing our export of virtual water from our areas.
  • To understand the severity of the issue of food loss and waste where in India 40% of food produced gets wasted, and thus the huge amount of water it takes to make.

When we waste food, we also waste all the energy, water and material it takes to grow, harvest, transport, and package it. When consuming all these resources, if food goes to the landfill and rots, it produces greenhouse gases and about 11% of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system could be reduced if we stop wasting food.

Food wastage, also implies a waste of water

I encourage you to discuss the concepts of virtual water and water footprint with your friends and colleagues and share your reflections, perspectives, doubts, and points with us so that we can try to address them in the next blog on the same topic.


About the author: Dr Eshwer Kale works with the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), Pune.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the India Water Portal.

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