Visualizing our water footprint

by Ryan Griffin-Stegink

Growing up in rural Michigan, water was free and unlimited.  It was pumped from a well behind our house and came out of the tap clean, clear, and drinkable.  There was no need to conserve water or be careful with its use, and I took its infinite supply for granted.   Aside from the relatively minor nuisance of municipal water bills, most of us in the United States enjoy this easy and virtually limitless access to water, which makes it difficult to remember that many in the world do not.  I didn’t start to realize how “water-rich” I was until I traveled to parts of the world where good water is not as abundant.  A week of showering under a cold trickle in Guatemala did more to drive this point home than 20 years of “conserve water!” public service announcements ever could.

We can’t count on everyone to have this sort of travel experience, though, so how can we simply and directly remind ourselves of the inequalities in global water supply and use?  This is the problem set out to solve with their World Water Day Challenge.  The winning design is a slick interactive map that makes it easy to compare water availability and use around the world.  There’s also a component that allows you to compare the amount of water used in the production of various goods, like beer or clothing.

Check out the map, and start by clicking on the United States.  Now, as you move your cursor over other countries, you can easily compare their water use to ours.  Hover your mouse over Spain, for instance, and you can see that the average Spaniard uses about half of the water that the average American uses each day.  Nudge your cursor up to the U.K., where the average Briton uses only about 12% of the water that an American uses!

Click on the colored dots at the bottom of the map make it show various data.  The most interesting is “poor access to water,” which makes it easy to see where lack of access to clean water is a big problem.  Not surprisingly, most of the red areas are found in Africa.  Don’t miss hovering over China, though.  The number of people in China with poor access to water equals (if not surpasses) the population of the entire United States!

When you’ve had enough of the map, click on the cup icon on the right side tool.  Here you can compare the amount of water “embodied” in various goods.  Here’s another reason to switch from coffee to tea: producing a cup of tea only requires a tenth of the water that a cup of coffee requires.  I found it interesting that growing rice uses more than twice the water that growing wheat does.

If you’re like me, you’re liable to forget most of this information the moment you navigate away from the page, so the tool’s creators added the ability to print labels, which you can tape to things as constant reminders.  Stick one on your gallon of milk, reminding you how many thousands of liters of water were used to produce it.  Or print labels for the United States and Guatemala and hang them side-by-side in your bathroom, where you are tempted to use lots and lots of water every day.  Don’t go too crazy with printing, though, because that paper has just as much water embodied in it (by weight) as tea!

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