Virtual water: tracing our overlooked water sources

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In the bustling setting of New York City, there never seems to be a shortage of food, water, or just about any resource we need on a daily basis. In fact, the concrete jungle overflows with resources. This leads us New Yorkers to believe that the ongoing drought has no direct effect on our livelihoods. But is that so?

Felt by nearly fifty-five percent of the continental United States, the drought has depleted corn, soybeans, and other major crops, and has also slowed the production of poultry and livestock. Consequently, food prices have risen. While it’s easy to understand that our food comes from other states, we might not be aware when our food is produced in areas stressed by drought.

Virtual water,” or the amount of water that is used to produce our food products, often goes unnoticed. As water shortages continue to occur in different parts of the world, many countries are becoming importers of virtual water. When countries relied on their own local agriculture, they were self-sufficient by necessity. But countries in the Middle East, for example, now rely on imported food (and ‘virtual water’) from elsewhere. Therefore, countries that are rich in water resources as well as financially equipped become major exporters of virtual water. In fact, the United States is the biggest trader in virtual water in the world. About one-third of all the water it withdraws from the natural environment is exported to other countries. This means that we in the USA need to be even more careful about our water usage.

Water is something that we, as both a global and a local community, take for granted. Though water is a renewable resource, we need to be careful in appropriating it and use it wisely. We may not have control over geophysical phenomena, but we do have control over our diet and water consumption, both of which we can alter to alleviate water shortages caused by the drought.

Take this opportunity to examine your direct and indirect water footprint by using this water footprint calculator. How much water do you use in a day, a week, or a month? Notice how much water goes into producing your cereal, vegetables, and meat products. Take it one step at a time to make small changes to your daily routine and reduce your water consumption. Whether it’s turning off your faucet while brushing your teeth or upgrading your washing machine to an energy efficient one, small individual efforts count. If everyone can make these small changes in his or her daily lives, our global water supply will be much better off.

For help in this process, check out these water conservation tips from the New York City government, this New York Times article, and this YouTube video on rethinking our attitudes toward water conservation.

Photo: Inhabitat New York