I think it’s safe to say that pretty much everyone knows by now that wasting water is a bad thing. In general, we know we should turn off the tap whilst brushing our teeth, only boil as much water as we need for a cup of tea, and take shorter showers in place of deep baths.

And whilst all of these things are important, they really are (steady yourselves for the upcoming predictable pun) just a drop in the ocean. Evidence suggests that we are approaching a global water crisis:

  • Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, and two thirds of that is locked away in glaciers and other inaccessible places.
  • At the current rate of consumption, two thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025.

Source: WWF: Water Scarcity

A global perspective

Earlier this year, there was one news story about the water crisis that really stood out. Cape Town in South Africa is in the midst of a drought, and the city was preparing for the apocalyptic-sounding ‘Day Zero’. This was to be the day the water supply to around one million homes was to be turned off. In its place, residents would have an individual daily allocation of just 25 litres (approx 6.6 gallons), available from water collection points around the city.

Day Zero was originally expected to be 21 April 2018. Through a number of water saving measures, Day Zero was pushed back on several occasions, and it is now thought it may happen in 2019.

But for those of us fortunate enough to be able to flush the toilet, wash our hands under a tap, or take a shower whenever we wish – this should be a wake up call.

Here in the UK, where it rains or snows for an average of 133 days each year, and with increasing numbers of floods, it may come as something of a shock that the Environment Agency has predicted that England could face substantial water deficits by 2050. Earlier this year, London was named by the BBC as one of 11 cities most likely to run out of drinking water.

Lake Mead in Arizona, USA, has been reported to be at risk of drying up – a supply of water to around 22 million people. Mexico City, Mexico, suffers from both floods and water shortages, and approximately one fifth of people living there do not have a reliable water source. With affected countries as diverse in climate and wealth as Kuwait, Lebanon, China, Chile and India, the water crisis is truly international.

So what can we do?

It was actually something rather small and simple that got me thinking about how to save water. So let’s kick off with a picture of her in all her glory:

water butt
Behold, a picture of my butt.

The water butt, newly installed in our garden last month, has had the surprise effect of making me more aware of the water I’m using everywhere else in the house. Technically, I’ve just given myself an up-to-100 litre water-wasting pass before I’m wasting more than I’m saving between each time the butt fills up, but it’s had the opposite effect.

It turns out that just the awareness of water saving in itself is enough to make me a more conscientious consumer. When washing up, I find myself saving the water that would be otherwise wasted waiting for the hot tap to heat up, switching my daily four minute shower timer to three minutes (definitely no time for faffing anymore!), and saving boiled water from boiling and steaming veggies to use on the house plants.

There are plenty of resources out there to show you how to save water around the home already, like these excellent zero waste blogger articles:

So instead, what I want to focus on here is saving the stuff you can’t see. The official term for this is ‘Virtual Water’.

Virtual water

What is Virtual Water?

Virtual Water is the water that never actually reaches your home but is used up in making the things necessary to our lives – the footprint embedded in almost every single choice you take; from the packaging your food comes in and the food itself, to the the clothes you buy and the energy used to power your life.

The amounts involved in a virtual water footprint put the water you actually see in the very deep, dark shade. A few examples:

  • The cotton needed to make a t-shirt is around 2700 litres (713 gallons) of water.
  • It takes around three litres (0.8 gallons) of water to make a one litre plastic bottle of water.
  • All the components needed to make single latte in a disposable cup uses around 142 litres (37.5 gallons) of water to produce.
  • The production of single sheet of paper can use over 11 litres (3 gallons) of water.

To make matters even more mind-bogglingly worse, all these products also need to be transported to us, adding between 2.8 to 6.6 litres of water for each litre of gasoline produced.

So if, like the average UK citizen, you are directly using around 141 litres of water each day (i.e. for washing, cooking etc.), you’ve instantly doubled that by buying a single coffee. That’s before you’ve included the water used in dressing yourself, driving anywhere, or even writing anything down!


Taking action

It’s ok, sit down, take a deep breath. There’s lots we can do to shrink our virtual water footprint, and happily, it’s generally good for the environment as well:

  • Buy less, buy well, and make it last. We don’t need drawers upon drawers of t-shirts (or other clothes), picked up for a few pounds, before being chucked away because they’re poor quality or out of style. Shop second-hand, or at least ethically made, and donate good quality items back to charity shops if you don’t wear them. Clothes that are beyond wear can be cut up for cleaning cloths, or donated to Oxfam to be recycled into other products.
  • Eat less animal products, and replace with more plant foods, sourced locally in season where possible. The average water footprint of a kilo of beef is 13,000 litres, compared with a kilo of lentils at 1250 litres. Eating foods grown nearby, in season, will also save on transportation fuel. Read more about the different water footprint of food and food production at www.waterfootprint.org.
  • Avoid unnecessary packaging. All packaging, regardless of how compostable or recycable it is, takes materials and water to produce. Bread, veg and fruit can all easily be bought loose, whilst meats, cheese and deli items can increasingly be bought in your own reusable containers in supermarkets. Check out Sarah’s excellent blog post on The Zero Waster for zero waste/bulk shops where you can buy all sorts of food loose.

Perhaps the most important question we need to ask ourselves when thinking about our virtual water footprint is ‘do I need this at all?‘. Do I really need a bigger house with more furniture for those extra rooms, a more powerful car, or another dress to sit in my already-full wardrobe to be worn once? More often than we think, the answer may be no.

Water is a non-negotiable need for human existence. For the sake of our ecosystems as well as ourselves, those of us that use the most water, both seen and unseen, have to take action now.

Photo credits:
Cover photo by Derek Story on Unsplash
Watering can photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

8 thoughts on “Virtual Water: An introduction to saving the water you can’t see

    1. Thank you Kathryn! I really appreciate it 🙂

      On the shower timer, we got one as a freebie through our water company. It’s plastic, but definitely works for us. I’ve gone from lingering to seeing if I can beat the beeps, so you never know if it *might* work on your daughters, especially if you sell it to them as a way to have a couple of extra minutes in bed in the morning 🙂


    1. Thanks Rach! I think the one that really surprised me was a single sheet of paper. Reading around to research this article was a bit of a shocker altogether!


      1. Yes, that made me think twice about how much I use paper, notebooks, etc! Though I suspect digital forms of writing and reading probably aren’t any less water- or resource-hungry. As you said, it seems like the only real solution is to own and use less.


        1. Yes – everything comes with a water/carbon price! I’m glad that some environmental principles are finally becoming mainstream, but I think we’ve still got a while to go with the “just have less” message…


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