The water crisis

We are running out of water

Humanity fundamentally depends on water. With no water, there is no life. Although water seems abundant across our planet, we are quickly deteriorating our most valuable resource at an alarming rate. Water is becoming scarce and we now have to dig even deeper to access new sources, as we continue to waste food and with it our foundation of life.

Water is the essence of life

  • There's a whole lot of water on Earth: roughly 1.332 billion cubic kilometers (Israel, 2010) taking up over 70% of the entire planet's surface area (NASA, 2019)
  • The Earth holds about 326 million trillion gallons (326,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons) of water (EarthHow, 2019)
  • Water travels in a constant cycle - it evaporates from the ocean, condenses into clouds, rains down on the land below, and then flows down rivers back to the ocean (NOAA, 2019; NASA, 2012). The cycle is nature's ultimate recycling system

"In essence, less than 1% of the planet's water is available to fuel and feed humanity"

World Water Reserve, 2019

Even if water makes up 70% of the Earth's surface, 97% of it is spread across 5 ocean basins as salt water. Actually, only 2.5% of all water on our planet is fresh water, while 70% of that is locked away in glaciers and ice caps. All in all, humans can use both ground and surface water, but these sources are quickly running out...(USGS, 2013)

Our source of life

"It is estimated that we "eat" 3496 liters of water each day - invisble and hidden in our food"

TheWaterWeEat, 2019

Water scarcity

  • The water crisis is the #4 global risk in terms of impact to society (World Economic Forum, 2019)
  • 40% of the world’s population (up to 2.8 billion people) are now living in water–scarce regions and some 0.9 billion people lack access to safe water (European Report on Development, 2012)
  • 4 billion people are affected by water scarcity at least one month a year, while 500 million people face year-round water scarcity (Hoekstra & Mekonnen, 2016)
  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population (5.3 billion people) could be living under water stressed conditions (UN, 2014)
  • The agricultural sector is expected to face increasing risks from water shortages, constrained by a growing demand for water beyond the agricultural sector and increased variability of precipitation due to climate change (OECD, 2017)
  • Yet, fresh water sources are distributed unevenly around the world (OurWorldInData, 2019). Each country and individual uses different amounts of water on average.
  • To find out how much your country currently uses (more here or here) and what your personal water footprint is right now (more here)

"While the amounts of water that exist seem to be plentiful, the availability of the water for human consumption is limited"

  National Ground Water Association, 2019

We have to dig even deeper now...

  • We access fresh water through our rivers, lakes, underground aquifers, ground ice and permafrost. But exactly those sources are being rapidly depleted but only slowly replenished by water and snowfall (TED - Ed, 2018) 
  • Climate change will impact precipitation frequency and intensity (Pendergrass & Hartmann, 2014). It will shift our weather patterns, meaning that areas where we used to expect a steady amount of rainfall are now experiencing more unpredictable and extreme precipitation (ClimateRealityProject, 2019)
  • Future global food demand is expected to increase by some 70% by 2050, but will approximately double for developing countries, meaning that the amount of water withdrawn by irrigated agriculture will need to increase by 11% to match demand (FAO, 2008)
  • Groundwater represents more than 90% of the world's readily available freshwater (The Guardian, 2015)
  • Filled over billions of years, they are today being drained at two to four times their natural recharge rate (Time, 2018)
  • 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being depleted faster than they can recharge, posing a long-term threat to the world’s freshwater supply (NASA, 2015)
  • More efficient irrigation practices, such as drip and micro-sprinklers, can reduce the volume of water applied to agricultural fields by 30-70% and can increase crop yields by 20-90%. Yet, drip irrigation is used on less than 2% of irrigated land worldwide (National Geographic, 2019)

How much water is actually wasted?

Food waste also means wasting valuable resources such as water. Each year, more than 66 trillion gallons of water go toward producing food that is wasted (WWF, 2019). This means that the global water footprint of food waste is higher than that of any country (FAO, 2013). Today, food waste accounts for a quarter of our water use for irrigation - equivalent to the worldwide water withdrawal by the industrial sector (SIWI, 2012). Globally, this is equivalent to an area of 250 km3 of water and represents (FoodIsForEating, 2019; FAO 2013):

  • The annual water discharge of the Volga river
  • Three times the volume of Lake Geneva
  • 100 million Olympic sized swimming pools
  • New York’s domestic water needs for the next 120 years

So how much water do we actually need to produce food?

The food system needs water to plant, irrigate, wash and even cool food. Additionally for meat and dairy production, animals need to drink vast amounts of water to survive. Different produce uses different amounts of water (WFN, 2019), but here are some examples for you to put things into context:

Banana: Throwing away 1kg of bananas is the same as letting a shower run for 84 minutes. For a single banana, we therefore waste enough water to take a shower for 10 minutes (SaveTheFood, 2019)

Apple: Throwing away an apple uses as much as water flushing 7 toilets (SIWI, 2012)

Burger: Throwing away one burger wastes the same amount of water as a 90 minutes shower (Oz Harvest, 2019) while the production of one burger uses as much water as hundred days’ worth of showers or 16 bath tubs filled with water (SIWI, 2012) 

Milk: One liter of milk wastes 1000 liters of water needed for the cow and the feed it consumes (SIWI, 2012; SimplyLiveConsciously, 2019)

Did you know that 15,400 liters of water are needed to produce 1 kg of beef?

Livestock production accounts for over 8% of global freshwater use. A cow is born and is then slaughtered roughly three years later. In its lifetime, it will eat roughly 1300kg of grains and 7200 roughages such as pasture or dry hay, that add up over 3 million liters of water to irrigate. Now add the 24,000 liters that the cow needs to drink and the 7000 liters needed to operate the farmhouse and slaughterhouse. 

For 200 kilos of boneless beef, we will need 3,091,000 liters of water. So 1kg, we will need roughly 15,400 liters (SIWI, 2008; TheWaterWeEat, 2019). This is how much an average domestic household uses over a 10 month period (roughly 50 litres/person/day).