Saturday, 7 January 2017

Global Water Crisis Vs. Environmental Change

As per with most subject, looking into something can provide new information and, at the same time, make us realise how much more there is to know, learn and explore.

Our global virtual water footprint is an interesting concept. And it only plays one part when it comes to our whole planet's ecosystem. This is especially clear when we consider our planetary boundaries, a framework comprising a subdivision of the Earth's systems within which us humans can safely live and operate.

Introducing this concept after a small exploration into virtual water is to show that getting to know one subject can help us connect it to others, and help us reach a wholesome understanding of the Earth's system and how they are connected.

I will let Rockström explain further.

In his presentation Rockström has the bravery to involve our planet as a stakeholder, rather than keeping his speech completely anthropocentric.

Losing system resilience and crossing thresholds means we need of a new paradigm to direct us to concrete actions that will encourage and trigger tangible change.

Considering the planet as a complex self-regulating system, and thinking of the interconnectedness of systems, shows that in addition to the main three planet boundaries of climate change, ocean acidification and ozone depletion with large-scale thresholds, there are slow variables, underlying systems which regulate and determine the state of the main 3. These include nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use change, rate of biodiversity loss, air and chemical pollution and freshwater use, connected to the concept of virtual water.

Once again we go back to the legislative role, mentioned by Rockström: local actors need to be governing the commons on a global scale with resilience and sustainable development at the forefront of priorities.

In fact, in order to be able to achieve a prosperous future within a safe operating space needs, first of all we have to undergo a shift in mindset, and in the past few months I have realised how important human psychology is in behavioural change, including environmental change.

Thinking of water as something that links everything we do and use every single moment of every day has added a new layer of understanding and knowledge that has been affecting my own decision-making.

Not everyone has access to the same information as me, yet whether it's the words of scientists or of poets and word artists, there is a whole lot of potential and sources of inspiration.

The multitude of issues we are facing as a planet are serious and critical, but needn't be overwhelming: all things which need changing in fact simply present an opportunity of improvement, from local-level tweaks to massive global shifts.

The good thing is that small improvements can be tried any day.
Due to the role of agriculture in our global virtual water footprint, we can make an effort to reduce beef consumption at any mealtime, or even better, favour plant-based food to meat and other animal products, therefore reducing water use and pollution.

By being aware and attributing the environmental value to everyday goods and services as part of a mindset shift, we could appreciate all we have access to more, taking small steps in steering the Anthropocene away from environmental degradation and towards a respectful, recovering stage.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Eat Less Water - Part 2

As initiated in my previous post about Eating Less Meat Water, meat - and beef in particular - has a very high virtual water footprint: 15,500 litres of water is the average amount required to produce one single kg of it (Hoekstra, 2008).
This explains how the water cost of a single burger is so high at around 2,400 litres, as showed in the picture I enclosed at the start of the blog.

But as also noted, animal products demand is rising. Most of the quantity need of water lies in the production of feed for animals to grow in order to satisfy this demand globally.

Hoekstra's report, "The hidden water resource use behind meat and dairy" is invaluable in illustrating this topic very clearly.

The water footprint of an animal includes all the water needed for its consumption of feed, all drinking water and servicing water such as cleaning. 

Hoekstra explains that the main elements which make up the water footprint of animal products are the feed conversion efficiency and the feed composition.

The former is the amount of feed needed to produce a certain amount of animal product: it is more efficient in industrial systems as the animals don't move much and therefore do not require as much feed to convert into meat.
The latter is more water-intense in such industrial systems where the feed is more concentrated and often made of irrigated and fertilised water-intensive crops, as opposed to grass and fodder crops which have a lower water footprint.

In the case of beef, the water footprint can vary as cattle can be located in regions with different levels of water availability.
Blue, green and grey water access also vary in different geographies, causing different environmental and social impacts, supporting the idea that the water footprint is an issue which goes beyond mere quantities and differs according to local water sources.

This in turn is amplified due to globalisation, and our regular food consumption patterns including regularly consuming food that was grown and processed elsewhere, and which affected water footprints far from the eating location.

GMO Corn grown for cattle in New Tecumseth, ON, Canada.
In this region, availability of land for crops and of blue, green and grey water make the area suitable for growing food that could be used directly for human consumption rather than cattle feed. Own photo.

The report continues by comparing the water footprint of animal products to that of crops.

Interestingly, from a nutritional standpoint, one of the main points from Hoekstra's report states: "The water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value." and that "For beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is 6 times larger than that for pulses."

It moves on to compare the water footprint of an omnivore diet including meat and a vegetarian one.
In industrialised countries, moving toward a vegetarian diet, still including dairy and eggs, can reduce the food-related water footprint of people by 36%. (Hoekstra, 2012)

He concludes by highlighting that despite the unsustainable need of resources by the meat and dairy industries, there is no real governmental or policy effort to highlight and address the impact that these sectors have on the planet's resources.

Corporations nowadays have more and more power, so I had a look at if and how some companies are addressing water scarcity issues.

Some of the solutions aim at offsetting the water footprint of companies and meat production, usually by investing in technology that will find solutions to save water usage (Hoekstra, 2012).

Water Neutrality Perception

is using more energy and efforts to merely mitigate the effect of actions that are so high in energy and resource use the best option or simply the most appealing one, from the point of view of a business that has enough funds to do so and wants to prove its care for environmental sustainability while maintaining "businesses as usual"?

It may sound overly pessimistically realistic, perhaps even a surprise - after all, the concept of embedded water doesn't get a fraction of the coverage it deserves.

However, I was excited to find out that while some sources show the global outlook is propelling itself towards a more animal-dense - therefore resource-intense - future, social media research engines such as Brandwatch predict that 2017 will be the year of vegan meat.

Aside from the trend factor, this links back to supply responding to demand for a product which, in substitution for animal products, requires less water and could make a significant change in the use of water for food production.

Keeping in mind high-population countries considered to be developing, such as Brazil and China (FAO; FAO, 2012), are some of the drivers of this increase in demand, in some instances aspiring to live a Western lifestyle, and despite the FAO itself trying to promote pulses as sustainable protein sources to promote healthy diets and combat climate change and malnutrition, perhaps the rise of vegan options in the West is going to translate in high demands of such foods in developing countries too, eventually decreasing the overall demand for meat and therefore lightening the pressure on the use of water resources for its production.

Better labelling could help too! Imagine if packets of food had values noting the water footprint of the contained product, similarly to some products' packaging showing the certified carbon neutral symbol: that would be an additional way to highlight the environmental effect of food and the more sustainable nature of meat-free varieties.

How effective do you feel are such market changes as drivers in demand for products with different levels of water footprints?

Do you feel that change at a legislative level remains the best option?
Would more informative labelling work?

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Eat less water - Part 1

By now the notion of eating water will probably make sense.

Water is a renewable but finite resource, and food production requires a lot of energy and use of finite resources, such as water.

During the Christmas break my family enjoyed a joint of roast beef. An ordinary thing to do, right?

The thing is, when I see a chunk of beef, I don't see a mere meal.
I see a piece of an animal organism that requires a lot of energy to produce, with a large carbon and virtual water footprint.

This is how...

Take a look at this graph from the UNEP website showing the trends in global water use by sector:

Vital Water Graphics, UNEP

This source is from 1999, demonstrating such data has been around a few years, and the projections are clear: the agriculture sector clearly surpasses not only the domestic but also the industrial use of water in terms of extraction and consumption.

Going back to the visual set of FAO's factsheets on water, more recent data shows the agriculture sector accounts for 70% of our planet's water use.


The main data set for agriculture is at 1'40''.

Within the agricultural sector, beef in particular is one of the most water-needing types of agricultural good to produce.
Considering a variety of sources, it requires a staggering 15,000 - 15,500 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef.

In fact, according to "The Green, Blue and Grey Water Footprint of Farm Animals and Animal Products" study by Mekonnen and Hoekstra published by UNESCO, (for differentiation of green, blue and grey water please refer to my previous post on Shades of Water), findings showed that beef cattle have the largest contribution to the global water footprint of farm animal production, at 33%, followed by dairy cattle and pigs (19% respectively) and broiler chickens (11%).

That is also the reason why so many water footprint calculators, ask to specify what kind of meat consumer we are. Take a glance at ones I mentioned in my first post.

Projected increase in demand and therefore production of animal products indicated that this sector is going to carry on adding pressure on the Earth's freshwater resources (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2010).

What could effectively decrease our water footprint: better feed for the animals? A shift in our diets?

For someone who is used to eating animal-free vegan food, and happy to so, the answer is a no brainer, the connection between daily meals and water scarcity issues is clear and an obvious one.

However, more general factors need to be taken into consideration and addressed from the food production point of view in order to understand why there has been such a strong trend leading us, the human species, to consume more and more animal products that are draining the Earth's water resources both directly and indirectly.

The main driver in increased demand of animal products since the 1980s has been stimulated by improvements in economies and people's disposable income.
Higher demand meant that animal production had to be intensified and shifted from grazing to a more intense and industrial system, itself triggering a diversification in animal feed, which had a different - higher - water footprint (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2010).

Different stages of agriculture require uses of water that make it add up to such large quantities: production of the meat and requirements of water directly for the animals and water to grow their feed, water to look after the animals and water needed during processing, transportation and packaging.

In addition to all this, these processes involve practices which pollute ground and surface water. This takes place both when the animals are growing and in slaughterhouses (FAO).

Out of all the water needed to produce animal products, the biggest factor making animal products' water footprint so high is the water needed for animals' feed (Hoekstra, 2012)...

(To be continued in Part 2)

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Visual Virtual Water

Images and videos can enable information to be absorbed and retained better than in written form; not only that, the message can be overall clearer and more efficient.

I looked up several videos which would add layers of knowledge to the notion of virtual water and explain its cost through showing it. As expected, I encountered different sources, contrasting points of view and a variety of styles.

I started with a video from the FAO, which was very informative, but really didn't make the most it could from its potential visual communication effects, raising incredibly important points, but in a dull way, lowering its communication is in fact an infographic slideshow.


The main points raised by this moving infographic are:
  • water is a renewable BUT finite resource
  • agriculture accounts for 70% of total water use
  • the world is thirsty because it is hungry
More info: FAO land and water

Another video I found is from RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana, Italy's public broadcasting company), and / but in English.


It's very brief but to the point. This video mentions:
  • 90% of water is needed to produce our food
  • the water cost of beef: >15,000 litres for a kilo - for the cows to drink every day, to run the farm, to water the fields to grow their food...

Its description includes: "the production of meat and food products of animal origin, such as dairy products, entails water consumption with today's systems that would be entirely unsustainable if a larger share of the world population ate the same amount of meat as we eat in more developed countries."

It's easy to think of changing habits as unlikely, not worth it or simply too much of a hassle, but putting in into perspective, a global one, may well be one way of encouraging action.

I watched more videos, and the one I enjoyed the most because of its richer content, raising of many questions and touching on many topics, is this video by Robeco, who are sustainability investment engineers.

                                                    Water - our most precious resource

I like this video as it's informative, interactive, interesting, the message is clear and it focuses on many aspects related to water use.

  • 97.5% of the Earth's water is salty
  • 2.5% is freshwater
  • > ⅔ of freshwater is locked in polar ice caps and glaciers
  • 0.5% of water is from lakes, rivers and groundwater for agricultural, industrial and personal use
  • 0.007% of global water supply is safe for consumption for all and unevenly distributed 
  • 15,500 litres of water to produce a kilo of beef 

It goes on to mention water scarcity, listing several "developed" locations on Earth where this lack of water is manifested, such as Spain and Southwestern US, which is a positive feature as it can make viewers relate to this issue more. This is due to the fact that water aid ads often concentrate on far more remote regions, allowing some to think it's a "far-away" issue when, in fact, it concerns everyone.

Population has risen over the years and consequently water use has too, while this resource has remained the same.

Considering the socio-economic effect of a growing middle class and its role in emerging markets being a cause of the rise in demand for water, it directly relates an increase in disposable income with the increase of the consumption of meat: carrying on at this rate, total demand for water will exceed the world's supply by 40% by 2030.

Time to do something!

What can be done?

Technologies can alleviate water scarcity by enhancing the quality of water and its use efficiency,
recycling industrial water, improved infrastructure to reduce leaks, desalination, investing in water solutions as a way of capitalising on long-term growth opportunities as the water industry is expected to grow.

Acknowledging the source of the video, the solutions obviously shifts to sustainable investment, and I think that perhaps that is one of the most effective ways of making a solid change in the way we think of and (mis)use water.

In order to raise awareness of the use and cost of water, is it more important to focus on water as a natural resource, as a human right or as a good which will acquire far higher value in the next few years and that is worth capitalising on for maximised returns?

The way the economy drives much of the globe's dynamics, and despite my own opinion, I think the latter is more likely.

What do you think of these videos' different approaches?
Which one is most effective for you, what improvements should be made, what aspects of water scarcity and virtual water should be highlighted?

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Shades of Water

Water is available on Earth in various forms and sources: oceans, lakes, rivers and streams, snow, glaciers, precipitation, fog, wetlands, underground aquifers...

This post is an opportunity to investigate a little, and clarify the terminology which categorises different types of water and virtual water, to understand how they are affected from human use.

Part of the range of terms attributed to water are divided in colours which somewhat reflect the state of the water in question and are typically attributed to different sources, kinds and uses.

These are: blue, green, grey and black water.

Blue water

Rockström et al. refer to blue water as liquid water in rivers and aquifers, in addition to groundwater, as considered by Hoekstra et al.and lakes and dams, according to Falkenmark et al.

Green Water

Rockström et al. explain green water is "naturally infiltrated rain, attached to soil particles and accessible to roots".

Blue and green water are closely linked in two ways, mainly: the moisture present in the soil perculates restoring the underlying aquifer, and blue water can be used to supply the lack of green water through irrigation (Rockström et al.)

There are two water complementary flows: the blue water flow through rivers, wetlands and underlying aquifers or groundwater and the green vapour water.

The green water flow is from natural systems (crops, forests...), it evaporates back into the atmosphere and comes back in form of precipitation.

The cycle can then start again.

Green and blue water flows (Falkenmark & Rockström)

Grey Water

Jefferson et al. define grey water as arising "from domestic washing operations. As such sources include waste from hand basins, kitchen sinks and washing machines, but specifically exclude foul or black water sources (toilet, bidets and urinals)." [...] usually generated by the use of soap or soap products for body washing and as such, varies in quality according to, amongst other things, geographical location, demographics and level of occupancy."

Grey water is collected from sinks, showers, baths, washing machines, dishwashers and can be distributed with different means, such as distribution of water directly from the sink into the toilet as flushing water, or by treating it and making it suitable for irrigation.

In addition, grey water as its own footprint, which the water footprint website defines as "The volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants based on natural background concentrations and existing ambient water quality standards. It is calculated as the volume of water that is required to dilute pollutants to such an extent that the quality of the water remains above agreed water quality standards."

Black Water

Black water is water which has come into contact with fecal matter, which contains harmful bacteria and pathogens.
Unlike grey water, coming into contact with this type of waste means that the water is not able to be reused, for example in irrigation, without the risk of contamination.

Waste water has its quality affected due to human use, from domestic use (grey and black water) to industrial or commercial production.

As mentioned before, we are living within the context of  a water crisis: using as little water and as efficiently as possible is vital.

Water-efficient solutions are available and at times in place. 

The image below is an example of a greenhouse village which shows the potential of what can be achieved already.
It is decentralised from an energy and water supply and with a waste and water treatment. This means it is an independent, closed loop system where there is no waste or entropy: everything is a valuable input.

Water is supplied by collecting rain water and is kept in a cycle by treating grey water from the home, which is used for irrigating the greenhouse, itself is a source of energy; black water waste gets treated too and provides soil conditioner.

This introduction to different types of water will be useful when I delve into the cost of meat, in my upcoming post.

In the meantime, more information on types of water, water footprint, virtual water and more and can be found from the water footprint website.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Plastic and water-saving law strikes again!

After my post about legislation as a way to regulate the use of water, and my thoughts on the importance of bottom-up pressure in order to support effective legislative change, an instance of the success of new law implementation came to mind.

In October 2015 a new law was implemented in England.
It requires "large shops in England to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags."

Such a simple, straight-forward law, already in place in many nearby countries such as Ireland, Wales and Scotland, was viewed as a potential source of chaos and angered customers by some, but one year on, the results have been very promising.

At the end of July, figures indicated there was a drop of 85% in use of plastic bags since the previous year's law implementation, or an astonishing 6bn fewer plastic bags.
All thanks to a 5p charge.

In addition to the benefits of reduced use of plastic bags, it meant that over £29 million made from sales of bags which were sold at a 5p charge were given as donations to charities and community groups.

As an estimated and unimaginable 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans each year, this is a relatively positive start in terms of reducing waste and pollution.

This legislative action has resulted in the number of plastic bags found on beaches reduced by almost half.

This infographic shows additional data on plastic bans around the world.


The plastic charge law saved a remarkable amount of plastic from being used. But...water?

As discussed in my initial post, everything we use has a water cost.

This tax implementation, in fact, saved water twice: the virtual water from the production of additional plastic bags production, and water from being polluted with the plastic that would have been used and ended up in the sea, on beaches, on the ocean floor had the law not been put into place.

It takes 24 gallons / >109 litres of water to produce 1lb / >450g of plastic.
The plastic bag charge can be seen as a victory in terms of reducing the use of water as a positive, collateral advantage.

Within this context, change happened once people were nudged into being more careful about using plastic, with a fee...

A study showing that the charge in Wales had become even more successful after its implementation (Poortinga et. al) supports the positive outcome of what can be an example of behavioural economics, a complement paradigm of "rational-man economics" as a way of "internalising externalities through the mechanism of price" (Dietz et al., 2011 : 74)

This law worked in Wales and it's proven to work well in England too.
It is currently compulsory for large businesses only, but if the law was to be extended to cover small businesses, the benefits could evidently be even greater.

Nevertheless, plastic bags and the pollution and water cost they hold constitute a small part within the multitude of the habits we have that are harmful to our environment.

The bag charge success could be taken further, and act as equally beneficial within the context of other similarly omnipresent "convenient" single-use containers, such as coffee cups or plastic bottles.

However, calls for charge on coffee cups was recently rejected in the UK, so more work needs to be done to achieve laws which will efficiently reduce pollution.

The need to be nudged into making better choices when it comes to convenience items remains, yet the bag charge law equally remains the best example of its success.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Individual vs Legislative Approaches to Use of Water - Part 2

(Continued from part 1)

After consulting a variety of documents I read through DEFRA's (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) report from March 2016, "Enabling resilience in the water sector" added on Water UK's website
In relation to next year's deregulation plan, point 73 is centred on promoting markets, and water is considered as an asset delivering benefits, improving incentives and facilitating markets.

The document states that "The sector needs to adapt to ensure that it can continue to meet the needs of people, businesses and the environment – and the Government’s framework needs to adapt too." (

The sentiment is that as the population continues to grow, and the effect of climate change will put more pressure on the delivery of access to water at the same level as it is now, there will be the need to make water supplies more resilient. 
However, there are no indicators that legislation may be stricter specifically in terms of water use in the first place, except perhaps during emergency periods, such as droughts, with water restrictions put in place on those occasions (point 13). 

Another minor sign that attention will be given to reducing leakage to a minimum, and efficiently reusing water and helping customers in using water efficiently is included in the last paragraph from point 20 (DEFRA, 2016).

UK drought, The Guardian, 2011

The paragraph on "Boosting business resilience" in Part 2 states that: "Without a step change in our national approach, lack of access to adequate water supplies could lead to some businesses being unable to operate while farmers and growers could lose crops or have lower quality crops. If enough power stations had reduced operations due to lack of cooling water, this could affect the national grid particularly if other generation sources were unavailable." (DEFRA, 2016).

The focus, once again, is on boosting business resilience, which is seeking a solution to conditions becoming harder and more challenging; supporting businesses to be resilient, enabling collaboration between businesses and water companies... but what about farmers shifting to growing crops which are less water intensive? If other generation sources of power were to be unavailable, wouldn't that be an opportunity to push for investment for renewable energy production, such as solar energy, for which no water is needed, unlike during the extraction of coal?

"Long-term planning and investment" being mentioned as "essential to securing the water sector's resilience" show the evident colonisation of water as something that can be, and is, a source of or intrinsic to production for human use and advantage.

The conclusion confirms the "business as usual" attitude: "[...] continue to meet the needs of people, businesses and the environment." [...] "continue to work with the water industry, regulators, consumer groups and other water users to deliver, and ensure that our policy framework enables the transition to a more resilient water sector."

As regulations don't show any shift towards a less water-intensive production system, there should be more pressure on politicians to encourage, promote and invest in renewable energy and more efficient use of water, to minimise waste in forms of leakage and lower the overall need for water in the agricultural industry as well as commercial production.

To reach that stage there must be pressure put upon politicians who are likely to have economic interests above environmental ones, who value short-term gains over long-term resource availability.

This thought process identifying the issue from a legislative point, has made me realise that my personal conclusion closes off in a loop, coming back to personal and individual action.

Understanding the elements which determine high use or high saving of water is vital, yet if the majority of individuals who are more likely to suffer the consequences of lack of access to safe water do not put pressure on policy-makers, legislators and members of the government, it is unlikely that meaningful change is going to take place before drastic measures will have to be adopted.