Our Water Footprint – Can We Make a Difference?

A NextGen Blog by Lauren Rose, University of Exeter.
Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts students’ essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Lauren graduated from the University of Exeter (UK) and University of Queensland (Australia) with a degree in Zoology. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Island Conservation and Biodiversity at the Jersey International Centre of Advanced Studies. She believes nature-based solutions can best help our expanding human population live in harmony with the natural world. Read Lauren’s earlier posts here.


As “The Economist” has reported, “Water is the oil of the 21st century.”[mfn]The Economist[/mfn] Like oil, water is a finite resource; yet unlike oil, there is no substitute for water. It is one resource, if not the most precious, that we have; although it does not receive the recognition, appreciation or protection it deserves.

Globally, around 780 million people still do not have access to clean drinking water.[mfn]UNESCO[/mfn] This global issue is a matter of supply and equitable access to clean water. Freshwater is not an equally distributed resource, since 50% of global freshwater supplies are contained in just six countries  (Brazil, Russia, Canada, Indonesia, China, and Colombia).[mfn]National Geographic[/mfn] Even within these countries, there is often an unfavorable ratio of water supply to their populations. For example, the U.S. has 4.5% of the world’s population, but nearly 8% of its freshwater; whereas China holds 19.5% of the world’s population, but only 7% of its freshwater.[mfn]National Geographic[/mfn]

Woman collecting water from well at local gas station, India

To further exacerbate this issue, water prices are also rising to unsustainable levels. Between 2010 and 2019, the average price of water in the 30 largest U.S. cities grew by 60%. In California it increased by up to 300%.[mfn]CNBC[/mfn] Additionally, a NASA study showed that 13 of the world’s 37 most vital groundwater basins are being exploited at a much faster rate than they can ever be replenished.[mfn]NASA[/mfn] When coupled with further disruptions to water cycles from climate change and other anthropogenic impacts, there will be a predicted 40% deficit in fresh water supply by 2030 unless extreme and coordinated actions are taken to improve global water supply management.[mfn]UNESCO[/mfn]

Reduced availability and the quality of freshwater will also have a domino effect on all aspects of life. Increasing resource competition within communities will create unpredictability for farmers (especially those in low-income countries) and impede the fundamental human rights to food, water, and sanitation.[mfn]Manganello, K.[/mfn] Currently, 25% of the global population live in countries experiencing extreme water stress. Additionally, over one billion people live in areas where water is scarce. Without serious action, this figure is anticipated to rise to 3.5 billion by 2025.[mfn]World Resources Institute[/mfn]

Tractor abandoned in the drought-ridden Central Valley of California

Although our global water footprint is beyond a level of sustainability, variation does exist between nations. For example, the U.S. has a water footprint of 1,796 gallons (6,800 liters) per person per day, whereas China’s footprint is a mere 501 gallons (1900 liters) per person per day.[mfn]CDP[/mfn] A 2011 study estimated various national water footprints on an annual basis:[mfn]Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.[/mfn]

  1. China: 1.5 billion people use 362 trillion gallons
  2. United States: 300 million people use 216 trillion gallons
  3. Brazil: 175 million people use 95 trillion gallons
  4. Russia: 143 million people use 71 trillion gallons
  5. Mexico: 100 million people use 53 trillion gallons
  6. India: 1.1 billion people use 30 trillion gallons
  7. England: 60 million people use 20 trillion gallons
  8. France: 60 million people use 20 trillion gallons
  9. Canada: 33 million people use 19 trillion gallons
  10. Australia: 20 million people use 12 trillion gallons

However, progress is being made as 193 countries vow to reach multiple UN Sustainable Development Goals. One in particular is delivering water to all. Realistically speaking, what difference can a single person’s reduction of water usage make to the planet? What about a company’s reduction? Or an entire industry’s reduction? The water cycle and issues such as climate change create a complex system. Altering a single cog in the machine will not create enough change by itself. For true success, there needs to be a combination of bottom-up and top-down shifts in businesses and societal values in regards to global water usage, distribution and preservation.

Girls from an orphanage in Tanzania carry buckets of water from local spring

Food & Textile Producers’ Water Consumption

Food production is responsible for a staggering 70% of human water consumption.[mfn]World Resources Institute[/mfn] Crops such as wheat, corn, rice, cotton and sugarcane are infamously thirsty. In fact, a 5-pound bag of white sugar uses approximately 88 gallons of water, and the production of a single hamburger requires 2400 gallons of water.[mfn]Water Wise[/mfn] Agriculture is by far the most damaging industry to global water sources; and so improved technology and irrigation management would help significantly.

Awareness-raising road sign in California’s Central Valley

Following shortly behind agriculture, are the textile and clothing industries. It takes approximiately 2,866 gallons of water to manufacture a single pair of jeans.[mfn]Water Wise[/mfn] Next, is the beverage sector. However, contrary to initial suspictions, its production and bottling processes are not soley at fault. Actually, they are connected with agriculture in their need for commodities such as sugar, barley, coffee, chocolate and vanilla. On average, the production of a 1/2-gallon (2-liter) bottle of soda would demand between 180 and 328 virtual gallons of water.[mfn]Water Wise[/mfn]

Corporatations’Water Consumption

In 2018 alone, companies globally reported over $38 billion in water-related financial losses. Despite scientific concerns and increased awareness of water risks, companies on the whole still extracted more water than is sustainable.[mfn]CDP[/mfn]

For example, Google opened a new data center in Phoenix, Arizona, which extracts a million gallons of water daily; considerably more than all of Phoenix’s local residents.[mfn]TIME[/mfn] Similarly, Nestlé siphons 45 million gallons of spring water daily from California’s Strawberry Creek alone.[mfn]Guardian[/mfn] But perhaps the most recent controversial topic is Coca-Cola’s alleged overuse of groundwater in India.[mfn]Guardian[/mfn]

Rajasthan woman digging for water in India

As one of the main ingredients in Coca-Cola, sugarcane requires a significant amount of water to grow. As well, subsequent production and manufacturing of soda drinks further drains local water reserves. Following legal battles with local residents, Coca-Cola was forced to shut several factories in India. However, due to this issue, the company developed a program by which it could return the same volume of water used in manufacturing back to the local area. However, it is not specified where this should occur. Often water is not returned to the region from which it was originally sourced; thus endangering local communities.[mfn]Environmental Protection[/mfn]

Still, some companies have begun taking necessary steps towards better water security and sustainability. Levi Strauss, a famous jeans manufacturer, co-founded The Better Cotton Initiative in 2005, to improve global cotton production.[mfn]Levi Strauss & Co.[/mfn] Similarly, while PSA Peugeot Citroën uses around 20 million cubic meters of water annually, they aim to clean and return all of it to the environment.[mfn]Groupe PSA[/mfn] In 2017, Marriott International launched its own Sustainability and Social Impact Goals based on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and Ford has become the first automaker to commit to The Business Alliance for Water and Climate’s Improve Water Security Initiative.[mfn]Marriott International[/mfn],[mfn]UN Global Compact[/mfn]

The ‘true cost’ of water is estimated at 3 to 5 times higher than the amount companies currently pay. Even though addressing this issue would cost organizations over $11 billion, it is essential to realize the cost of inaction is estimated at 18 times greater than this.[mfn]CNBC[/mfn]

Individuals’ Consumption

While companies are slowly but steadily realizing the importance of reducing their water usage for environmental, financial and social reasons, what about each one of us? How much can an individual consumer’s actions impact the global water footprint? The direct reduction in water usage that we each can make as a single person is negligible at first glance. However, very importantly, this does neither includes the indirect impacts of consumer choice nor the social change it can inevitably create.

Numerous studies have found links between our emotions and environmental engagement.[mfn]Peçanha de Miranda Coelho, J.A. et al.[/mfn] Whether we wish to reduce water usage for moral reasons, due to affinity towards nature or through fear of negative consequences, our feelings are unequivocally linked to our actions. To help connect others with nature and to make them feel able and motivated to change their behavior is something we can each do to help reduce global water usage.

Fisherman and his dog, enjoying a day on Canada’s Salmo River in British Columbia


Water usage, exacerbated by climate change, is a crisis that can unite us all. Its subequent challenges can even be an opportunity for companies to develop and market innovative ideas, paving the way for other organisations and improving their own brand’s image. 

More often than not, problems are discovered too late for solutions. However, we already have much knowledge of this arising situation. With targeted and persistent action, disaster can be avoided. A particular quote comes to mind:

‘‘When the well is dry, we know the worth of water”  – Benjamin Franklin

Let’s make sure we prevent catastrophe, rather than be left with searching desperately for a cure. The simple act of respecting and valuing water creates a basic appreciation. When this appreciation is coupled with action, we can effectively protect this resource.

Never underestimate your own ability to create change. Whether the impact appears large or small, its rippling effect can be incredible. Although individually we cannot solve climate change or the looming water crisis, together we can all do something.

Citizen science volunteers on New Jersey’s Raritan River

CDP (2019) World’s largest companies using more water despite rising risks, viewed 14 October 2021. https://www.cdp.net/en/articles/media/worlds-largest-companies-using-more-water-despite-rising-risks.

CNBC (2021) Why some of the world’s biggest companies are increasingly worried about water scarcity, viewed 14 October 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/06/29/water-scarcity-why-some-of-the-worlds-biggest-companies-are-worried.html.

Environmental Protection (2020) Big Corporations Contribute to Water Shortages — How Can They Fix It?, viewed 14 October 2021, https://eponline.com/articles/2020/06/03/big-corporations-contribute-to-water-shortages-how-can-they-fix-it.aspx.

Guardian (2017) Indian officials order Coca-Cola plant to close for using too much water, viewed 15 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/18/indian-officals-coca-cola-plant-water-mehdiganj.

Groupe PSA (2021) Stellantis: A leader in sustainable mobility, viewed 16 October 2021, https://www.groupe-psa.com/en/automotive-group/responsibility.

Levi Strauss & Co. (2018) Water Conservation Contest Winner Builds School Garden, viewed 16 October 2021, https://www.levistrauss.com/2018/06/05/water-conservation-contest-winner-builds-school-garden.

Manganello, K. (2019) Which Industries Use the Most Water?, viewed 14 October 2021, https://www.thomasnet.com/insights/which-industries-use-the-most-water.

Marriott International (2017) 2025 Sustainability & Social Impact Goals, viewed 16 October 2021, http://serve360.marriott.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Serve_360_2025_Goals_Dec_14.pdf.

Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A. (2011) National water footprint accounts: The green, blue and grey water footprint of production and consumption, American Journal of Hematology, Volume 1: Main Report, Value of water Research Report Series No. 5, available at https://www.waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Report50-NationalWaterFootprints-Vol1.pdf.

NASA (2015) Study: Third of Big Groundwater Basins in Distress, viewed 14 October 2021, https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/grace/study-third-of-big-groundwater-basins-in-distress.

National Geographic (n.d.) Competition and Conflict, viewed 14 October 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/competition-and-conflict.

Peçanha de Miranda Coelho, J.A. et al. (2016) Emotions toward water consumption: Conservation and wastage, Revista Latinoamericana de Psicología, Volume 48, Issue 2, Pages 117-126.

Sources:The Economist (2008)  Running dry, viewed 14 October 2021, https://www.economist.com/business/2008/08/21/running-dry.

TIME (2019) The Secret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water to Cool Servers, viewed 15 October 2021, https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water.

The fight to stop Nestlé from taking America’s water to sell in plastic bottles, viewed 15 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/29/the-fight-over-water-how-nestle-dries-up-us-creeks-to-sell-water-in-plastic-bottles.

UNESCO (2015) UN warns of 2050 deadline for dwindling water supplies, urges government action, viewed 14 October 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2015/04/495792-un-warns-2050-deadline-dwindling-water-supplies-urges-government-action.

UN Global Compact (2021) CEO Water Mandate, viewed 16 October 2021, https://ceowatermandate.org.

Water Wise (2007) Hidden Waters: We consume a lot more water than we can even imagine, and our water footprints extend far beyond our own nation’s boundary, viewed 13 October 2021, https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Zygmunt_2007_1.pdf.

World Resources Institute (2021) Ensuring Prosperity in a Water-stressed World, viewed 15 October 2021, https://www.wri.org/water.

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