Shrinking my water footprint


by Shiney Varghese | Aprli 22, 2009 • I live in Minneapolis where I have a 24-hour water supply. I take it for granted that I will have running water whenever I need it—for brushing my teeth, drinking, cooking or cleaning. I often forget what a luxury it is!

Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

Before coming to the United States, I lived in a small town in western India called Rajkot for a few years. There, I lived in an apartment complex surrounded by a still developing concrete jungle. The apartment complex promised a regular water supply, which meant that running water was available for an hour each in the morning and in the evening. I was living by myself, and I would collect enough water in the morning hours to meet my personal needs for the day.

But for my neighboring families—with at least four to five members—it was a struggle to meet their water needs from this municipal water supply. They would often resort to water supplied through tankers from neighboring villages—never mind if those villagers were selling water to the city because it was more profitable than raising crops, or even if it was lowering the water table so much that people without mechanical pumps could no longer get enough water for their basic needs. The impact of urban water use in Rajkot on surrounding villages was clearly visible to all.

These water-poor villagers are now among the numbers often cited in United Nations global water statistics: 2.6 billion without water for basic sanitation needs and 1.1 billion without access to safe drinking water.

Now I live by the Mississippi River and our public water system provides me with excellent water at a very reasonable rate. In the U.S., the same clean water is used for washing our cars, watering our lawns and filling our backyard pools, making the average water use of a U.S. resident 151 gallons a day. Compare this with the average water use in most African countries: less than 15 gallons a day. Living in Minneapolis, the connection between my water consumption and the global water crisis is not so clear.

I realize that my daily water consumption— for drinking, cleaning, cooking and washing—is only a small part of the water I use. Most of the water I use is invisible to me—it is in the food I eat, in the soda I drink and in the clothes I wear. It is in the making of the gas I put in my car and in the generation of electricity that I use to light my home. It is also in the making of computers, cell phones and cars that I use. With the exception of my summer vegetables, most of these things are not made or grown in Minnesota and thus most of the invisible water I use is not Minnesota water. The water I use could be from California or Florida, or it may be from Australia, China or Bangladesh.

Unfortunately, public policies promote invisible water consumption at individual and societal levels. National policies on agriculture, industry and energy production often assume that water is plentiful or cheap. Water is rarely a limiting factor in setting public policy.

For example, our Farm Bill supports a dominant agriculture model of just a few primary commodity crops that are extremely water-intensive. Agricultural practices that include water stewardship, such as sustainable agriculture, are not similarly rewarded. In moving forward, it is essential that we shift public policy to acknowledge the importance of water, and break this vicious cycle in which we are trapped.

This Earth Day, I found some ideas to reduce my personal water footprint: canning and/ or freezing summer vegetables (instead of buying fresh imported vegetables next winter); reducing meat and other animal-based food items in my diet; shifting to local and/or fair-traded products that are sustainably produced; reducing the amount of processed food I buy and the food I waste; carrying a stainless steel water container; using bio-degradable and less polluting cleaning products; using public transport; and buying less. That is a start for me!