Wat-er Mess (or, Why Society is Once Again Seriously Screwed)

I’ve always been a bit of an environmentalist. From a very early age I’ve had a thing for the rain-forests, and later, a desire to be environmentally concious and relevant. I guess going through grade school in the 1980s meant that I imprinted a whole lot of those social awareness messages- especially growing up in Geneva and surrounded by the UN and other international organizations. At university I studied environmental issues in depth at both undergraduate and postgraduate degree levels- right down to examining journal articles analysing ice-core samples, pollen records and isotopes found in the shells of prehistoric crustaceans. So when ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was released to much global chatter ten years later, I didn’t learn anything I hadn’t already concluded from the research I’d dissected years earlier.

That said, being convinced of the need for humans to be environmentally courteous, it’s still a challenge to know how to do this. Trade-offs abound. Hidden costs are everywhere. I recycle. In the past I have tried to exist without much use of a car (though living in the sprawling suburbs of a city with a rotten public transportation network- Melbourne- this has proved extremely impractical now). But I’m also aware that for my job I travel vast distances by airplane, and this probably puts me into the more pollutant-contributing members of our species- a fact I try to justify through what I do, but the fact remains.

Water is a huge issue. It ranks as the second most essential ingredient for human life to continue, after oxygen. It is an extremely limited commodity which is being depleted globally, and the worldwide distribution of which is being negatively impacted by changing climate patterns. It has long been predicted that future conflicts will be driven by the struggle for control over clean water resources.

The state of Victoria, where I live, has been struggling with drought for over a decade now. In this interactive graph provided by Melbourne Water, you can see how water levels in dams and catchments have fallen from the period 1997-99 (top 3 lines) to the period since 2007 (bottom 3 lines). We are in city-wide water restrictions at Stage 3, which restrict activities such as watering gardens, using hosepipes, washing cars and filling pools (watering gardens, for example, can only be done twice a week on designated days, using a watering can; cars cannot be washed, except for spot-washing of windows and mirrors where visibility is being affected, using a bucket and sponge).

I have always tried to do my bit. Campaigns call for 4-minute showers, and as a guy I don’t find this hard to comply with. I find I can’t take a shower now- anywhere- without mentally keeping a check on how long the water is running for. I see the value in water and I do want to conserve it.

My struggle has been wondering how much difference this sort of choice makes. I have always been sceptical. For example, it’s all very well if I restrict my water usage, or even if all households in Melbourne restrict their usage and cut back, but what sort of a difference do we make when there’s no evident transparency around the amount of water going into, say, agricultural irrigation schemes, or industrial production. In my mind, it was quite possible that 80% of the available water was going into these other things, so unless work was being done to curb water use in other economic activities (which, of course, I could see as being highly unlikely politically due to desires to maintain economic throughflow) then my efforts might very well be the proverbial drop in a bucket.

I did see a statistic at one point that suggested that household water usage accounted for about 50% of state-wide water consumption, against agricultural and industrial production. This made me feel a little better. I could see the value then in making some personal sacrifices. After all, every litre saved is a litre in itself and has value. Having lived and travelled extensively in the third world, having watched people queue for eight hours to fill up their buckets, or women and girls spend hours each day gathering water to survive, I understand how precious each of those litres are. Heck, I’ve done my time washing out of buckets on a couple of litres a day. I get it.

But at the back of my mind has always been the hidden environmental costs that go into every facet of daily life. It crops up in a variety of ways. For example, when you buy a product that’s come from overseas, it’s been transported at an environmental cost. Has it come by plane? By sea? What about the various components that went into it- did they also travel to a point of manufacture? And the packaging? Without a detailed environmental audit of every product (someday I hope to see this on packaging much like we take nutritional information for granted today), it’s impossible to tell.

Good examples of this are organic foods. Touted as better for the planet, in fact this isn’t strictly true. Yes, they reduce the amounts of chemicals we’re pumping back into the soil. But in fact, the earth doesn’t have enough fertile land area to be able to produce enough food using strictly organic techniques to be able to feed our burgeoning population. If we converted all available land to grow organic foods and stopped polluting with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and other agents, tens of millions of people (and more) would rapidly starve to death- because in fact those pesky chemical fertilizers do vastly increase the yield of food per hectare that we can produce. Trade-offs.

Another example is ethanol fuel. It’s plugged as an environmentally friendly alternative to gasoline, and is mixed in with regular gas as the ‘green’ option on the forecourts. However the processes behind ethanol production involve vast amounts of land area converted to sugar-cane. Demand for ethanol is accelerating the destruction (by fire) of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and the commercial exploitation of the residual infertile land for sugar-cane farming is devastating the soil quality, resulting ultimately in unsustainable practices, poverty traps for small farmers, and desertification. It is, in the long term, horrible for the environment, and I’ve stopped putting ethanol into my tank as a result (although the whole thing is a trade-off; which environmental cost is higher per litre of fuel- burning down rainforest and desertification, or pumping out higher levels of carbon fumes from my exhaust? It’s not easy to find out).

I was both fascinated and chilled to read a story last week on the BBC website about water use in Britain and how water use in developed countries was creating shortages in the developing world (not the story itself; that’s old news. But the details within it). They had taken just one resource- water- and applied exactly the above thinking to it: What is the hidden cost behind the products we take for granted? They call it “embedded” water usage- namely, how much water goes into producing said item- watering the crops that are the raw material, washing goods ready for commercial availability, involved in chemical processes, etc. There is an awesome interactive graph (yes, I like these things), and it displays per unit, and per kilo of product.

An example. A single sheet of paper takes 10 litres of water resources to produce, while a kilo of paper, around 2,000 litres (think about that the next time you by a ream of paper for your printer at home). For reference a bathtub takes on average 150 litres to completely fill. Melbourne’s household water target per person per day is 155 litres (and water statements here now come with little graphs showing how close your household water usage has been over the past quarter to that target).

Another example. A loaf of bread takes about 440 litres. Per kilo, bread requires about 1,000 litres.

Or take a cup of coffee. To make a single cup of coffee, 140 litres is required. Think about how little actual coffee goes into a mug- just a few dark grains at the bottom of the cup (or jammed into the espresso machine). To make a kilogram of coffee- get this- the report says it takes 21,000 litres. 21,000!!! When you see those lovely-looking 10kg hessian sacks of smooth polished coffee beans sitting by the counter at your local Java-juice dispenser to add a little ambience and authenticity, consider the fact that it took 210,000 litres of precious water just to produce that one sack. In perspective, that’s about what a thoughtful household in a western country might use in a year. It’s also the volume of a moderate sized swimming pool. 10kgs. It’s crazy.

Here’s one more. Jeans. This one freaked me out. To make a single pair of jeans- get this- it takes 10,500 litres. For one pair! This kills me! I never want to buy a pair of jeans ever again! And I like jeans! I have a good buddy who works for Levi’s here in Australia! But I can’t get over this number. It’s mind-blowing stuff.

Society is seriously screwed.

Anyways, that’s my rant for the day. Hopefully not too much doom-and-gloom in there. But at the same time, hopefully something to think about the next time you buy something.

And in all seriousness, I can’t wait for the day that all our commercial products have environmental information printed on them, just like today we can read the nutritional information. If we want to keep not just our bodies but our society and our world healthy, I think this is absolutely critical.

Shalom, Salaam, Peace.


1. Fill: A Haitian man fills a water container from an NGO-installed water-point on the island of Gonave, off the coast of Port-au-Prince.

2. Industry: Steam billows from an industrial smokestack in western Melbourne.

3. Stain: Saline water stained brown flows out into the sea in northern New Zealand.

4. Outback: Australia’s outback landscapes support it’s moniker as “The Dry Continent”- the most arid landmass on the planet.

5. Stage III: Hosepipe bans and garden watering restrictions are hallmarks of Melbourne’s Stage III water restrictions.

6. Gathering Water: Haitian women and children gather at an NGO-installed water point to collect water.

7. Shade: A boy shelters from the burning midday sun in the Sahelian drylands of southern Niger during the 2005 famine.

8. Therapeutic Feeding Centre: An infant waits to be registered at an NGO-run therapeutic feeding centre for severely malnourished children during the 2005 famine in Niger.

9. Stream: Steam blows from industrial smokestacks, western Melbourne.

10. Pouring Water: A Nigerien girl fills clay jars of water from a deep well. Girls and women in Sahelian Africa spend many hours of each day gathering water for their households- first hauling the heavy liquid up from wells and bores, then transfering it to pots which they then carry back to their homes one by one.

To see more of my photography please check out my Gallery here.

2 comments on “Wat-er Mess (or, Why Society is Once Again Seriously Screwed)

  1. Pingback: Is Vegan Enough? Food that oppresses people « vegan animal liberation alliance

  2. What powerful information. After having watched the documentary film Flow, I became very interested in the issues regarding the world’s water supply. I did a research paper for my graduate studies International Law class on the privatization of water and whether or not it infringes on human rights. This is a tricky subject and this article (thank you Sara for sending it to me) has opened all sorts of doors to more questions I need to have answered. Well done morealtitude.

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