A World of Water Footprints

Image from 2011 Visualizing.org's water footprint visualization winning entry, created by Joseph Bergen and Nickie Huang.

Americans can be fond of themselves.

I know this to be true because of the responses I get from people after they take the GRACE Water Footprint Calculator (WFC), which is based on American averages. When they first learn about the WFC, visitors are eager to get to their specific direct and indirect water total as measured in gallons per day. Then they're eager to compare themselves to the average American. With any luck, they tell their friends and family and decide to lead a more water conserving lifestyle, but typically, the interest in water footprints kind of wanes.

This focus on American water use patterns makes sense since we want to know how we compare to the people that around us. But while it’s great for someone to compare his or her water footprint to the American average, it also sets a low bar, since Americans have the biggest per person water use (and waste)—not exactly a stellar achievement. But since the American water footprint spans the globe through both direct and virtual use, greater awareness of where our water comes from and how we actually use it is increasingly important for conservation in an economic system that is becoming more complex and interconnected.

There’s a whole world beyond the United States with differing resources, cultures and values placed on how and why water is used.

There’s a whole world beyond the United States with differing resources, cultures and values placed on how and why water is used.

Some of these remarkable differences are reflected in a newly produced visualization of worldwide water use called, What is Your Water Footprint? The first part is a map that gives us the opportunity to break out of American-centric observations and make comparisons to other countries. This interactive map is composed of an illuminating set of water consumption data points based on national averages that partially account for lifestyle habits. By scrolling over each country, users can compare categories like urban population, water supply and water usage per country per person, among others.

The second part is a window that allows the user to investigate the virtual water content of certain products in a side-by-side comparison or by comparing them to a selected nation’s water stats. Printable labels that graphically display the water footprint of a product or an average person by nationality are available for download so you can consider specific products as more or less water intensive.

The impressive water footprint visualization is the creation of Joseph Bergen and Nickie Huang, two students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, who won a competition hosted by Visualizing.org and Circle of Blue. The contest’s theme of “urban water use,” which came from World Water Day 2011, is integrated into the visualization as the category “Urban Population.” Water footprint data comes from two sources, the Water Footprint Network, of which GRACE is a partner, and the Pacific Institute.

As for the approach by Joseph Bergen and Nickie Huang, Bergen explains:

There were massive spreadsheets of numbers with units like km^3/year that had very little practical meaning to us (or to anyone else we suspected), so we set out to try and reduce this information to a relatable scale while maintaining the bigger picture. We were really interested in how much water each person actually uses and how that differs from place to place. But by itself, just seeing how much water someone uses still leaves the question of where the water actually goes. So we went a step further and looked at the embodied water in everyday products so a person interacting with the visualization can actually identify the hidden water content of items they use.

Below are some striking statistics represented in their project that not only show the divergent and unequal water consumption levels around the globe, but also how the consumption of products, with all the “hidden” water used in their production, factors in to an individual (or group’s) water footprint.

  • With the biggest individual water footprint on the planet, the typical American consumes 1,157 gallons of water per person per day compared to the average Yemeni, who, with one of the smallest water footprints, consumes 108 gallons per person per day.
  • Take a look at four fast economically developing countries that are often classified together as the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and the difference in daily per person water footprints: Brazil = 230 ; China = 301 ; Russia = 388 ; India = 423.
  • Diet is the primary way to shrink your own personal water footprint. Do you want to shrink your footprint big time? Then try drinking less coffee and eating less (beef) steak (2,496 gallons per pound and 7,133 gallons per pound, respectively).
  • One microchip in your iPad, laptop or other electronic devices takes about 4,227 gallons of water to produce.

Americans should care about the virtual water in the products and services we buy and use because the vast majority of our water footprint comes from places outside our local environment and watershed. In essence, we are using other people’s water.

What this and other visualization submissions show is that combining data and digital imagery can shape the way we view and understand the world. It can also introduce us to experiences outside our everyday lives and bring us into contact with concepts – like water footprints and virtual water – that are especially dependent on geography, hydrology and production techniques.

Americans should care about the virtual water in the products and services we buy and use because the vast majority of our water footprint comes from places outside our local environment and watershed. In essence, we are using other people’s water.

Hopefully tools like these will encourage people to engage with complex water resource problems. Such tools can also assist in creating a more comprehensive water conservation framework that includes traditional approaches, like water utility conservation programs, yet extends beyond to provide solutions appropriate to the great scale and myriad complications inherent in the global freshwater crisis. Harnessing digital technology to illustrate complex water issues, at the very least, can help people develop a greater consciousness in decision making based on the understanding that much of our water and resource use is hidden in products. In that way, Americans as the global consumers par excellence can also be global water savers both at home and abroad, helping to present the real depth of our water use as expressed through our water footprint.

Or in the words of Bergen, as he discusses revealing the water hiding in our everyday products and routines:

Some of the numbers are unexpected and may be the most important for everyone to understand because I think the more information we have about the impact that we have on the world, the more likely we are to change for the better.

(Hat tip Circle of Blue)

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