October 21, 2020

Virtual World, Virtual Water

The US Water Alliance has decreed that today we are to “Imagine A Day Without Water.” Think of it: no water to brush our teeth, flush our toilets, shower or bathe; no milk for our cereal or ice for a cocktail; no tea, coffee, or even juice. If you look up the essential ingredients for life on Earth, the first and foremost is liquid water. (It’s why far-ranging satellites and far-seeing telescopes search for signs of water on distant planets. They know what we know: water means life.)

Since we seem to be living so much of our lives in a virtual world these days, let’s spend some time on this Day Without Water thinking and talking about virtual water. What do I mean by “virtual water”? No, I’m not talking about the water emoji! According to World Energy, virtual water is the amount of water required to produce any given item—from food to textiles to intangible commodities, like energy. 

Growing food to feed the world’s people accounts for about 92 percent of global water consumption, a staggering amount. Manufacturing and other industrial uses require about 4.4 percent of global water consumption, and household water use requires about 3.6 percent.

Tell a fifth grader, as I have, that a slice of pizza takes 333 gallons of water to make and she’ll reply, “What?!?!?” But it’s true! It takes water to grow wheat for flour, to grow tomatoes for sauce. It takes water to nourish the cows who make the milk that makes the cheese through a process that uses—surprise!—more water.

Tomato.jpgSee this bright tomato in my hand? It’s 94.6 percent water! (In effect, tomatoes are heavy balloons filled with water, a red skin holding all the liquid inside.)

Did you know it takes 49 gallons of water to produce one 7 oz. bag of potato chips? And it takes 11 gallons of water to produce one slice of toast; 190 gallons of water to produce one bottle of wine; 13 gallons of water for one orange; and 18 gallons of water for one apple.

How much water do you think it takes to make one cotton tee shirt?

  1. 11 gallons
  2. 236 gallons
  3. 718 gallons

If you guessed C, you are correct…and probably shocked.

Consider, then, the special form of madness we show in importing tomatoes from water-scarce countries or regions—the Central Valley of California or Mexico—to water-rich areas, like Chicago. We can’t grow every kind of produce here—our climate isn’t suited for almonds, for instance—but we could grow tomatoes year-round in hoop houses instead of importing them from thousands of miles away.

And that’s what thinking about virtual water is all about. We must consider the ways our consumption goes beyond the mere goods we exchange—oranges, tee shirts, laptop computers—and account for the water needed to supply these goods and where that water comes from.

To see a nifty poster on virtual water, go to virtualwater.eu. You can also calculate your own water footprint at watercalculator.org to see how shopping habits, transportation, and our diets all impact our water footprints due to the virtual water that makes these behaviors possible. 

Fifty-eight years ago, Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “Of all our natural resources, water has become the most precious…In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind to even his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of indifference.” Let us endeavor, then, to dispense with our indifference. Today and every day, let us consider water not only in the ways we see it in action—our showers, our ice machines, our garden hoses, Lake Michigan!—but also in all the unseen ways we take water for granted.


Pharmaceutical Take-Back Day on Saturday, October 24

“Imagine a Day Without Water” calls us to consider the conditions that can keep us from having drinkable, sustainable water, from water scarcity to water contamination. You can do your part to keep our waters clean and safe by participating in National Drug Take-Back Day on Saturday, October 24th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. You can bring your unwanted and unused medications to a drop-off site close to home to safely dispose of them free of charge. By now you probably know that wastewater treatment plants cannot remove all of the pharmaceuticals that reach them, so it is important to dispose of medicine properly at a drop-off site, and not to throw it in the trash or toilet where chemicals can contaminate our rivers and streams. To find a free drop-off location near you, visit the Drug Enforcement Administration website. There, you can also find other drop-off locations that are open year-round.

While we're all focused on the virus, there is another, hidden mental health pandemic that receives less attention. The isolating winter months may only make people feel more alone and desperate, which is why now is a great time and this Take-Back Day is a great opportunity to remove harmful substances from our homes before they can be abused.