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Time to consider our water footprint

21 April 2010

Business leaders across the UK are being urged to reduce their impact on the environment by getting involved with the not-for-profit initiative, Water Saving Week (June 12-18 2010). The DEFRA-backed, nationwide campaign – now in its second year - encourages awareness of water waste both at work and at home. It also serves to remind us just how much water is used in the processing and manufacture of imported commodities and products. A lot of us may be concerned about our carbon footprint; perhaps we should also consider our water footprint.

The Water Footprint Network (WFN) website lists some astounding statistics on the quantities of water used in the production of everyday commodities and foodstuffs that we in the West take for granted. For example, 3,900 litres of water is required to produce just one kilogram of chicken meat, taking into account the water needed to produce the feed. Water consumption for manufactured goods is rather more difficult to assess, but the WFN estimates that for every US dollar’s worth of product, this can range from 15 to 100 litres, depending upon where it was made.

The UK’s reliance on this ‘virtual’ water is exacerbating water shortages in other countries, according to a report published last week by the Engineering the Future alliance. Two thirds of the UK’s water footprint is now effectively imported in the form of food, energy and other goods that require water for production and transportation from countries that are themselves under water stress. Introducing the report - Global Water Security: an engineering perspective - chairman of the working group, Professor Peter Guthrie pulls no punches:

“If the water crisis becomes critical it will pose a serious threat to the UK’s future development because of the impact it would have on our access to vital resources,” he says. “Food prices would sky-rocket and economic growth would suffer. To prevent this we must recognise how the UK’s water footprint is impacting on global water scarcity. We should ask whether it is right to import green beans – or even roses - from a water-stressed region like Kenya, for example. The burgeoning demand from developed countries is putting severe pressure on areas that are already short of water. Our virtual water footprint is critical and we need to give it far more attention.”

The report urges the UK to take the lead by tackling its own water footprint, managing its own water resources sustainably, but also by managing the virtual water embedded in its imports. Because the UK uses so much water internationally through its imported goods and services, it has a duty to provide leadership on the development and implementation of global responses.

Professor Guthrie says there is no single silver bullet for water security. Water management must be looked at in a holistic way, from ‘cloud to coast’ including all forms of water - in the soil as well as in rivers and reservoirs. “Reducing demand will be important but so will developing engineering solutions to create new, sustainable sources of water and promote efficiency in current practices,” he says.

But water quantity is one thing; water quality is quite another. According to the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), more people die from unsafe water than from all forms of violence, including war. CIWEM believes that these deaths are an affront to our common humanity and undermine the efforts of many countries to achieve their development potential.

Wastewater management is a major challenge, with 80 percent of all waste in developing countries discharged untreated because of lack of regulations and resources. Increasing population growth, rapid urbanisation, discharge of industrial chemicals, climate variability and invasive species are key factors in contributing to the deterioration of water quality. And, despite progressive improvement in the provision of sanitation since 1990, an estimated 1.1 billion people rely on unsafe drinking-water sources; 2.6 billion people lack access to improved sanitation; and 2.2 million people die every year from diarrhoea, most of them children under the age of five.

Last month, the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) – a member of the Engineering the Future alliance - joined forces with Engineering Against Poverty (EAP), RedR and Engineering Without Borders (EWB) to promote a collaborative approach to aiding communities in need. ICE president Paul Jowitt reminds us that engineering, technology and innovation are crucial in the fight against poverty. “Issues of global water security, increasing population, urbanisation and climate change mean the world we live in is changing rapidly and we require innovative solutions to meet these new challenges,” he says.

Andrew Lamb, chief executive at Engineers Without Borders UK, says there’s a common message coming from this new liaison between disparate organisations. Engineers, and engineering, are central to the relief of poverty and suffering, and the engineering community is re-awakening to this idea. “What we need to do now is to re-awaken the development and relief communities to engineering. This agreement sets the basis for some exciting collaborations in the future.”

Les Hunt

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