What is the “invisible” water footprint?

It is widely known that water plays a central role in life on our planet. Every species – at least in the animal and plant kingdoms – shares this common basic need.

In this article, we will understand how water is distributed around the globe, we will go through the concept of water footprint, and how we can reduce it.

This article adds to the most recent Food for Thought article and, therefore, focuses on the impact of our diets on water availability.


A Blue Planet

Planet Earth is often referred to as the Blue Planet because it has most of its surface (71%) covered by water.

Not all, however, is available for human consumption. Over 96% of all water on Earth is salt water, forming one great ocean that unites all continents. This leaves about 3% for freshwater.

Almost 70% of all freshwater is frozen away as ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow, a number which is rapidly decreasing due to climate change and the consequent melting of ice caps.

Groundwater and rivers account for roughly 30% of all freshwater (learn more about how water is globally distributed here).

As we can see, what initially seemed like an infinite resource, can very easily turn into a limiting factor.

Water stress (the lack of access to enough freshwater) is being observed in a wider set of regions and countries. Today, 10% of the world’s human population lives in conditions of high to critical levels of water stress, according to the United Nations (learn more here).

It is known that 70% of all freshwater withdrawals are used in the agricultural sector.

Could we, then, reduce agriculture’s water footprint and make more efficient use of this vital resource?


Our “invisible” water footprint

As we saw above, the food we eat has a water footprint, and a big part of it is “invisible”.

Everything we eat requires water for its production. Some of this water footprint is easy to understand.

An example would be the water we need to nurture and grow a bell-pepper seed into a fully-grown plant; or even clearer, the tap water we drink daily. A large chunk of our water consumption, however, is not direct like that. We can think about the water used to clean farming equipment, for instance, or about the water needed to grow animal feed.

Animal products are, in general, more water-intensive than their vegetable counterparts (when comparing, for example, beef with pulses, or chicken with tofu). That’s not too hard to explain – eating the animal means adding one step to the chain, creating an intermediary between us and plants.

But this is not always the case. Nuts, like almonds, cashews, and pistachios, for example, require a good amount of water for their production.

You can learn more about the water footprint of specific products here.


Reducing our “invisible” water footprint

There is no way around it – reducing our consumption of animal products is a game-changer when it comes to saving water.

But there are other things one can do:

  • Washing vegetables inside a bowl or Tupperware. This water can be reused to water the plants.
  • Planning our meals. This way one can make more efficient use of the kitchen and of course, of one’s water usage.
  • Avoid running warm water to defrost food. Once again, we can plan and defrost it in the fridge overnight.
  • Rationing the amount of water used when boiling veggies. Besides, we can reuse this water rich in nutrients (one should mind the amount of salt added to the water while boiling vegetables).
  • Steaming or cooking our veggies in the same pan where we’re cooking pasta or rice. This way we’ll have fewer pans to clean. A similar idea is to make one-pot meals, which will also save us time!
  • Using the dishwasher whenever possible. It is much more efficient in terms of water usage. When doing the dishes manually, one should turn the water tap off while rinsing (learn more here).
  • Avoiding food waste: over 1/3 of all food produced is wasted (learn more here), which means that 1/3 of all water used for agriculture is wasted as well.

We hope you find this information useful.

If you have comments or questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section below.

You can read more about water and how to make efficient use of it in this presentation, by Dipen Mehta, the regional coordinator for Global Tree Initiative India.

1 Comment

  1. Anrich Bester

    Nice read, thanks Kika!


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