Water, Water Everywhere…

Nowadays, with global warming at the forefront of our concerns about the environment, we frequently talk of our carbon footprint or the carbon footprint of a process or event. Many people now offset their carbon footprint through the many programs that are available. For example, a couple of years ago, the Academy Awards – the Oscars – made a big thing about being carbon neutral.

But what about a water footprint? We each use water everyday – and not just to wash or drink. Water is “embedded” in everything that we eat. It took water to raise the cattle that provided the beef that was turned into the steak you may have enjoyed at lunch. Take a can of Coca-Cola. Water was required to produce the drink itself and the aluminum container – and water was used in the process of transporting the soda from where it was made to the store where you bought it. Every process, every thing, every person has a water footprint.

Yet we take water for granted. We shouldn’t. Water conservation is an incredibly important issue – as important as climate change, though it does not get the same attention. We will focus on water in next week’s class when we will have water expert James Workman as our guest. Meanwhile, you might check out Jamie’s website, including this section on embedded water and water footprints. A copy of his book Heart of Dryness is on reserve at the PPA Department general office.

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9 Responses to “Water, Water Everywhere…”


  1. 1 Ng Ka Yin, Karen 30/09/2009 at 10:43 am

    We, Hong Kong people, seldom concern about the water shortage problem mainly because we are not really affected by it. Even there is a problem of the waterpipe and lead to temporary water shortage, we can simply and easily buy water from the convenience store.

    However, climate change is a big problem that we can feel and see. We can feel that it’s getting hotter and hotter in winter every year. People always concern about the problem that directly affect them.

    There should be a lot more information and publication for addressing this problem to public in order to let them know how serious it is, especially people seldom know there is 2400L water involved in a hamburger when they are eating it every day!

  2. 2 Chan Pui Ki, Kiki 30/09/2009 at 7:29 pm

    It is the first time that I learn about the interesting concept of “water footprint” and I think of some ways which may help reduce water usage.

    Just as energy efficiency reduces carbon footprint, water efficiency should also be vigorously promoted to decrease water footprint. Funds should be allocated to develop new technologies which lower the content of embedded water in products. Less water can thus produce more products. To tackle the low awareness towards water conservation, the label scheme may be extended to signify the embedded water in products. Is it possible that alarming pictures be printed on packages to alert consumers, just like those on cigarette packs? At the moment, water charge should reflect the real cost of it but it may be politically difficult. The tariff structure under the user-pays principle can alternatively be reviewed.

    Reduced water usage should be accompanied by “increased” water availability.

    A few months ago, I realized that water in reservoirs in Hong Kong overflew when there was excessive rainwater. I am not sure if this is common elsewhere but I think more can be done to store rainwater. Seawater can be desalinized expensively, but we may store some of the rainwater before it flows to the sea in a cheaper way. Also, similar to waste, water should be recycled. Household waste recycling system can be incorporated in new buildings. More importantly, water pollution should be combated as I always remember a simple but meaningful quote:
    When the last tree is cut,
    When the last river is emptied,
    When the last fish is caught,
    Only then will Man realize that he cannot eat money.

  3. 3 Tang Yin Hang Phoebe 02/10/2009 at 9:47 am

    I also saw the overflow of excessive rainwater in reservoirs. I used to hike weekly and in summer the excessive water would pour down continuously into nowhere. It might be useful for the government to build larger reservoirs so that we do not waste so much water during the rainy season. Also, the government is buying too much water from the mainland government and we actually do not need this much. I think it is necessary that the government should re-negotiate with mainland China and increase our water dependency on our own reservoirs.

    There should be a tax imposed on bottled waters like the plastic bag tax in Hong Kong. Prior to that we will need water ‘machines’ placed around Hong Kong so that we can use our own water bottles. It is wasteful that we increase our carbon footprint and water footprint unnecessarily when we buy the bottle along with the water we need. Since the implementation of plastic bag tax is going smoothly, I think it will not be difficult to push the slogan of ‘Bring Your Own Bag’ further, using the same letters of BYOB and change the slogan to ‘Bring Your Own Bottle’.

  4. 4 Cheong Man Lei, Lillian 04/10/2009 at 12:35 am

    In response to Phoebe, your idea of “Bring Your Own Bottle” is very innovative. It is highly appreciated!

    Indeed, apart from those large programmes conducted by government, KiKi’s idea of allocating more fund to develop new technologies should be considered seriously and carefully. It is impossible for everything to be dealt with only by government. Private sector should be given more chances to participate in water conservation programme.

    In the US, besides the primary water treatment like the Municipal Wastewater Treatment, secondary treatment such as the Wastewater Management System has been developed. Instead of relying solely on those conventional municipal sewage lines and traditional septic systems, designed ecosystems with plant-based filtration are created and combined with the treatment steps used in traditional processes to produce high quality effluent that meet city or county water regulations.

    Moreover, with regard to the concern of rainwater storage, this can be addressed by the designed ecosystems for structural mitigation and rainwater re-use. Structural systems like reservoirs, stormwater wetlands, sand filters, and rain gardens, etc. are constructed. These help disrupt the stormwater flow for infiltration and retention of the water for the later “re-use” . This is the so called “rainwater harvesting”.

    All these innovative systems are from the private sector. Government should thus try hard to encourage and promote the development of innovative systems regarding water recycling in private sector.

  5. 5 Lau Chi Ling, Stef 04/10/2009 at 3:48 pm

    It is alo the very first time that I come across the concept of “water footprint”. As many of us know the “ecological footprint” is a very powerful index in showing how far do people in a particular area use up the resources, I do believe that not many people are concerned about the “water footprint” because many of us do think that water is a kind of renewable resource which will not be used up. That is why we do not really care about how much amount of water we use, especially when the resource does not cost us a lot of money. In many developed countries in the western world, one person can use up to 125 liters of water just for basic domestic use.

    However, I believe that we should bear in mind that water is only “supposed” to be renewable if human is managing this resource well. Nowadays, so many pieces of evidence are showing us that if we human beings are not using it properly, it can run out or will not be suitable for usage anymore. Global warming is defintely one of the most crucial factor in causing water shortage since it disturbs the operation of water cycles and can significantly reduce the amount of rainfall. In recent years, droughts seem to be happening much more frequently then the past centuries, and it is clear to show that global warming do pose an impact on water shortage.

    Also, we should never neglect the problem of water pollution, especially in those rapidly developing countries like China. Rapid and intensive industrial development is largely due to the government’s decision in making China a leading economy and nation in the world. Having such an ideology, negligence on environmental protection as well as resources conservation policies seem to be inevitable. Government do not strictly control the emission of pollutants and chemicals into major rivers in the country, which in turn caused serious pollution and contamination of river. Citizens’ lives are severely disturbed, and there’re the emergernce of many “cancer villages” in China, which many villagers died out of cancer because they have consumed those polluted water. Sadly, apart from revealing the situation to the media, they can do nothing eles to change the environment. More than that, fisheries and agriculture are seriously affected and it affected the livelihood of a large population. Based on these facts we can all see that water can be a “non-renewable” resource in the sense that if human beings cannot manage it well and use it wisely, one day it cannot be used anymore. This is a fact that all of us should bear in mind and we should take action from preventing the running out of water to happen.

  6. 6 Chow Chui Yin Kuma 05/10/2009 at 9:37 pm

    I find it difficult to keep in mind all the numbers like 2400L for a hamburger. Wouldn’t it be great and more memorable if a new system is to supplement this scale, let’s say 1-20L water consumption used in the production can be represented with blue color, 20-80L green, 80-200L yellow and over 200 orange, over 1000 red? It appears to me that if people are to be aware of their water footprint, there has to be some easily memorable scale that they can refer to, and best, memorise. If just people remember how many litres of water goes into the production of a certain good as well as the calories they will burn by doing certain exercise!

    The comments above mine have suggested many ways to conserve water but some suggestions have not been mentioned yet and I’d like to do it here.

    The cost of water–it may not be high enough. In the parts of the world where people like us are fortunate and priviledged and blessed with easy access to clean water, we use it too much and the cost of using it is way too low we do not reflect on the cost when we’re using the water,. Both the implicit and explicit costs of using water seems to have slipped the minds of lucky urban citizens.

    The cost of water can be used as a means to remould the thinking of farmers and entreprenurs out there concerning the use of water in their production. Lots of water is wasted by careless use of water like heavy evapouration in farming procedures. Paddy fields in California reuse only around 25-35% of the water used in their production. (http://community.nytimes.com/comments/dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/23/hot-dry-and-thriving-a-plan-for-california-farms/?scp=2&sq=desalination%20middle%20east&st=cse)

    I do believe the price of water that we are paying out of our pockets and by industrial producers has to rise.

    So we’re talking about shortage of clean and drinking water–the topic of desalination seems to me has not yet appeared on this blog. California is going to build the largest desalination plant in the Western hemisphere (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/15/science/earth/15water.html?scp=1&sq=desalination%20middle%20east&st=cse). From various sources I have read on the internet, many Middle Eastern countries are looking for cheaper desalination methods amidst serious water shortage in most of the region.

  7. 7 Brent Bowers 06/10/2009 at 3:53 pm

    I like the suggestion of a color-coded water footprint scale. This not only makes consumers more aware of the impact their choices are making on their environment, but it also encourages the suppliers (private, corporate, or otherwise) to be more responsible in their own supply chains (this same type of “consumer scaling” may be used for any number issues related to consumer/corporate responsibility).

    However, I cannot say that I like the idea of more expensive water. Perhaps geared in an urban setting (for say, drinking water) this would encourage more prudent use. But for the rural communities, this would only make a problem of rising production costs worse. After all, water is used in every process of agriculture. Food prices would grow exponentially, and this would contribute to the plagues of global poverty and hunger.

    Desalinization, however, is a key to solving this problem. It seems absurd, given the level of available scientific knowledge, that we have yet to discover a sustainable and efficient means to artificially amplify the life-giving water cycle process that makes terrestrial life on Earth possible. I say this half-jokingly, but it seems to me that if the forces of global warming cannot be halted, the least mankind can do is make good use of the seawaters that are to rise in the coming century.

    • 8 Chan Pui Ki, Kiki 06/10/2009 at 11:15 pm

      The public will definitely find it easier to comprehend if a colour-coded water footprint is used. Somehow, corporations will be pressured to reduce the water embedded in their products to show their corporate social responsibility which is increasing valued in the society.

      As for the cost of water, I think it needs to be adjusted according to the user-pays principle. This does not necessarily mean more expensive water for the underprivileged but does discourage wastage by the rich. Take the four-tier tariff structure adopted by the Water Supplies Department in Hong Kong as an example:
      “[T]he first tier of 12 cubic metres is free of charge; the second tier of 31 cubic metres is charged at $4.16 per cubic metre; the third tier of 19 cubic metres is charged at $6.45 per cubic metre; and the fourth tier for any consumption above the level of 62 cubic metres is charged at $9.05 per cubic metre.”
      Water becomes expensive only when there is excessive use. Any adjustment should be accompanied by measures to alleviate the burden of the underprivileged, just as they can be exempted from paying goods and services tax, but it is assumed that water is not controlled by global corporate cartels which Maude Barlow in the video cited in the next blog entry condemned.

      Concerning desalinization, I agree that more sustainable and efficient means should be invented. Seawater can be a reliable source of freshwater as the global hydrological cycle continuously supplies water to oceans. Now, desalination is energy-intensive. If it is widely adopted and if fossil fuels are used, climate change will be hastened. (And I once also thought that through desalinization, we could capture the freshwater-turned-seawater which is originally stored in ice and combat sea level rise. However, those countries most affected by such catastrophe, such as Bangladesh, Maldives and Vietnam, are simply too poor to desalinize their seawater!)

  8. 9 Triston Xun Cui 07/10/2009 at 9:32 pm

    It is the first time that I realized the concept of “virtual water”, “water footprint” and “embedded water in product”. Before everything about water consumption for me is like taking shower, drink and industrial use of water. I think the usage of these concepts make real sense of how people consume water. In usual life, people seldom realize that almost all products they use contain water consumptions, but when these concepts embedded in mind, they may behave more cautiously.
    In Hong Kong, I seldom realize the scarcity of water resources. Both because we have never experience the shortage of water, and Hong Kong rains a lot. However, due to the uneven of water distribution, even in our own country, the northern China sometimes are experiencing serious water shortage. My friend in Harbin, a very northern city in China, said to me that until 2005 Jilin chemical plant explosion, which causes the whole city’s water supply was cut off for four days, did he realized the importance of water in people’s daily life.
    Moreover, the water in Beijing was very cold due to it is deep ground water,if you access the link (it is in Chinese, sorry..): http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2002-10-22/0636776948.html, it said the average water resources per capita in Beijing is less than 300 cubic meter, equal to one eighth of national average level. However, water pollution and water abuse are still worldwide problems. Take Beijing as an example again, the figure showed that 44.1% of water resources in Beijing was in the “most serious polluted” level (link: http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2002-10-22/0636776948.html), which means the water cannot be purified by any means.


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