Water Madness

Once taken for granted, it may soon be traded like pork-bellies and pollution

News | Christian Cummins | October 2008

Australia is suffering cruelly under the claws of what is being called the "Big Dry," a record-breaking drought that has reduced parts of the world-famous Murray Darling wetlands into dry mud flats interspersed only with the odd toxic puddle, each tinted the color of foul orangeade.

Out in the hardy countryside, proud farmers are finally throwing in the towel on generations-worth of tough work and are looking for jobs that are less dependent on rain. In the city, or so I’ve heard, parents are stop-watching their teenage kids in the shower to make sure they don’t waste too much of what has finally been recognized as the valuable commodity that it is.

Well actually, as Australian water expert Jim Gill pointed out at the recent World Water Congress in Vienna, the stop-watching tends to go on the other way around. It is, in fact, members of the more ecologically sensitive younger generation that are bullying their parents out of the shower, as the drought-stricken southern continent adapts to a world in which your "water footprint" is no longer just a wet splodge on the bathroom tiles: it’s now a concept as important as the "carbon footprint" that defines the energy wars.

But aftert just one day at the World Water Congress, the ‘shower issue’ seems less the issue than things like what we eat. Aussies, as you’ll probably know, love a good barbecue, bless them, but meat - the Barby’s central focus - has been deemed the enemy of sustainable water resources.

Let me explain. This is a story about ‘virtual water,’ a term coined by the British ecologist John Anthony Allan. This concept takes into account the water used to irrigate the plants that produce the coffee beans, the water used in cleaning and processing those beans and even getting them to your local supermarket. In Europe, we think we are responsible for the 140 litres of water each of us runs through our taps every day for drinking, cooking and (hopefully) washing. But that, my friends, is just the beginning of the story. My morning espresso, in ‘virtual water terms’ was responsible for just as much. Or, actually, it was responsible for 280 litres since I, perennial Schlafmütze that I am, had an espresso doppio. Even my innocent slice of toast had soaked up 40 litres of virtual water. In fact by the time I had totted up the water consumption of my lavishly bohemian breakfast – noting with dismay than my sun-dried tomatoes were anything but dry – I had drained a small pond. And I wasn’t even at work yet.

Luckily, I don’t fancy meat in the mornings or I might have had a minor lake on my conscience. When it comes to swallowing water, animal produce is the unrivalled King. Thirsty cattle, for example, not only drink a lot of water, but they also consume a lot of food that usually has to be grown, and therefore itself watered. The virtual water cost of a kilo of beef is apparently a whopping 16,600 litres. Even a café latte will bump up your "water footprint." A mere milliliter of milk equals a whole litre of virtual water. That’s maths that even I can do.

Since 93% of the fresh water we use is consumed by agriculture, when water becomes scarce, it’s pretty obvious that the choices we make at the supermarket are going to have a big impact. The average European consumes between 4,000 and 4,500 litres of virtual water a day - if we cut down on meat consumption that figure would surely fall.

But why am I filling your head with these statistics? Austria is not Australia, despite what the British Post Office thinks. There is no shortage of water in Western Europe. Take the UK, for example: The Englishman (that wasteful extravagant breed) has one of the biggest water footprints in Europe, but he might point out that the skies have been piddling on his black umbrella almost non-stop for the entire summer. Yet, statistics show that it is not predominately this plentiful British water that he is actually using. In fact, only 38% of his virtual water comes from the UK. He munches strawberries from arid southern Spain, he does his skin a bit of good with some sponge-like avocado from deserty Israel, or he eats mange-tout out of season because it has been flown in from Africa.

This is the way the market works, of course. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes mildly insane. The Sea of Galilee, so well known to all fans of Sunday School, is at its lowest level ever. It’s been irrigated to death by farmers selling us fruits that are simply not native to the desert. The problem: Who would deny the Israeli fruit farmer his livelihood? Well, certainly not his own government with elections never far away! And, of course, Africa badly needs its foreign trade; it needs to sell produce to Europe. It needs our euros. But can this come at the expense of a sustainable water management plan?

These difficult questions will have to be answered sooner or later. The world population is growing and so thirsty mega-cities are also growing, particularly in the Third World. We are going to have to be more careful and sophisticated in our dealings with water, whether we like it or not.

Water is free in many countries (that’s why strawberries imported from Spain are so cheap) and yet, after air, it must be our most precious asset. I remind you that we can go without gold for more than a few days!

The lunch at the World Water Congress, by the way, was beef.

Other articles from this issue

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    News | Colin Leigh Peters
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  • Budgetary Giveaway

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    Opinion | Matthias Wurz
  • Skin For Sale

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  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review October 2008