The 15,000-Liter Steak: To make our lifestyle possible, each of us leaves behind gigantic water footprints
To make our lifestyle possible, each of us leaves behind gigantic water footprints. Without a change in consumption patterns, sustainability will remain an elusive dream. Go local, go seasonal!
We try to conserve water, we think that we’re helping the environment - and miss the heart of the water problem: In Germany, we indirectly use 4000 liters of water per day and person indirectly, through the food we consume and the products we use. Our indirect water use thus far outweighs the 120 liters of drinking water that each of us uses on a daily average.
Media outlets have recently picked up this phenomenon - also known as “virtual water”. Usually, the general public is surprised about the huge amount of water that goes into the production of everyday amenities.
What most people don’t realize is that the total quantity of virtual water is less important than we might think. Advocates often quote the statistical fact that the production of a cup of coffee requires the use of 120 liters of water. Indeed, coffee is an example for a product with a large water footprint - but coffee beans are traditionally farmed in regions where rainfall is high and no artificial irrigation is required. Yet our calculations typically include the evaporating rain. On a global average, this yields a figure of 21,000 liters of water per kilogram coffee.
A different picture emerges when we consider the example of Spanish tomatoes. Tomato plants require an annual rainfall of around 330 liters per square meter to grow properly. In a region where annual rainfall totals 200 liters, tomato farming can hardly be sustainable and only becomes possible with intensive irrigation. To water the plants, farmers draw on non-renewable water resources. The consequences are dried-up swamps and increasing salt levels in the groundwater (which render it useless as a source of drinking water).
Assessing one’s personal behavior is more difficult in the context of virtual water than in the context of climate change. Less carbon dioxide is always a good thing - but reducing the size of one’s water footprint does not necessarily imply a sustainable lifestyle. The goal is to avoid the depletion of non-renewable water resources.