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That glass of beer took more water to make than you think

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Image from World Wildlife Fund Web movie illustrating the water footprint of a latte. (Photo courtesy of WWF)

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Image from World Wildlife Fund Web movie illustrating the water footprint of a latte. The movie explains how all the inputs combined require more than 50 gallons of water. (Photo courtesy of WWF)

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Image from World Wildlife Fund Web movie illustrating the water footprint of a latte. (Photo courtesy of WWF)

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Image from World Wildlife Fund Web movie illustrating the water footprint of a latte. According to the Water Footprint Network, Americans have the highest annual per capita footprint, at more than 655,000 gallons. (Photo courtesy of WWF)

Ever wondered how much water it takes to produce the cup of coffee in your hand or the cotton shirt you’re wearing? Arjen Hoekstra has. And if the Dutch scientist has his way, more and more people will know the answers to those questions.

Hoekstra is one of the scientists behind the concept of the water footprint—not the tracks you leave on the floor when getting out of the shower but the amount of water required to produce all the goods and services you consume. Like the better-known carbon footprint, the water footprint seeks to measure, and make people more aware of, the impact of their consumption on the planet.

The idea is starting to make waves. Last December, the Water Footprint Network—an international body made up of environmental organizations, large food and beverage corporations, and government agencies, made its debut.

At the end of February, the first Water Footprint Summit was held in the U.S. At the event, held in Miami, environmentalists and representatives of major corporations including Coca-Cola, Nike and Starbucks discussed how companies could start measuring their water footprints.

While the concept is catching on among environmentalists and companies like Pepsi and Cadbury, it has yet to reach the public.

A random survey of New Yorkers revealed how little people know about the massive volumes of water required to produce everyday items.

As she waited in line for her cup of decaf, Rachel Friedman, a 26-year-old nursing student, thought long and hard about the volume of water needed to make a cup of coffee and then offered “10 cups.” When she heard the actual amount—592 cups—she was stunned.

“Wow!” she said, her eyes widening in surprise.

Even people one might expect to know the answer were off the mark. Carole Puzone owns Bazaar de la Paz, a store that sells only fair-trade goods, including coffee. As she drank a cup, she guessed it might take 15 cups of water. Outside, Evan Muehlbauer, who works with the nonprofit group Environment New York, was trying to get passers-by to lobby Congress to support green energy. “50 cups?” he guessed. Though he came a little closer to the mark, like everyone else, he’d never heard of a water footprint.

That reaction is not surprising. The concept is still in its infancy, though it’s starting to percolate through the Web. The World Wildlife Fund created a two-minute video that explains how a single latte requires 53 gallons (or 848 cups) of water to grow the beans and feed the cows that produce the milk to make the drink. And several Web sites, including h2oconserve.org and the Water Footprint Network (waterfootprint.org), allow visitors to calculate their water footprints based on their consumption patterns.

Before you panic about your personal water use, keep in mind that the concept has largely been used in reference to large-scale production. Hoekstra points out that the significance of the water footprint is less about the number of gallons used than where those gallons come from. The concern arises if the production of coffee, for example, is taking place in a region where water is relatively scarce and is therefore putting a strain on local communities and the environment.

Through a combination of global climate change, pollution and growing demand, the planet’s supply of freshwater is under increased strain. Water use increased sixfold during the 20th century—more than twice the rate of population growth—according to the U.N, which just released a major report highlighting the threats to the world’s freshwater supply.

Globally, 70 percent of freshwater is used for agriculture. This may help explain why several of the world’s largest food and beverage corporations (including Coca-Cola, SABMiller and Nestlé) are partnering with scientists to refine the water footprint model.

“We’ve been in the business of water for 122 years,” says Denise Knight, Coca-Cola’s water sustainability manager. “If we don’t have water, we don’t have a business.”

The World Wildlife Fund is working with Coca-Cola to measure its water inputs and reduce the ecological impacts of production. The company is also touting its environmental strategies in the wake of an international campaign against the company’s water-use practices in India. Two summers ago, Coca-Cola CEO Neville Isdell pledged the company would become water-neutral, meaning the amount of water it used would be returned to the earth through water conservation programs.

But not all environmental groups are on board. At a corporate water footprint conference in San Francisco last December, leading water activist Maude Barlow of the Blue Planet Project and a number of consumer rights and antiglobalization groups protested the event and held their own water rights conference.

They accused Coke and other food and beverage multinationals of contributing to water scarcity in the developing world and said they were more concerned about their corporate image than ensuring access to water for all.

Rich McIntyre, water policy director for Washington-based Food and Water Watch, says he welcomes any improvements being made by the companies in the Water Footprint Network, but he remains skeptical. Many question whether it is even possible to be water-neutral, and Coke concedes that water neutrality is an “aspirational goal.”

Christopher Williams, director of water conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, says for there to be a meaningful assessment and improvement of the water consumption required to produce mass-market items, environmental organizations need to work with companies like Coca-Cola. “They know a lot about water—sometimes more than us,” Williams says.

The next step, according to several environmental organizations in the Water Footprint Network, is the development of a gold standard. The Trust for Nature Conservation, the World Wildlife Fund and several other organizations are about to launch the Alliance for Water Stewardship. In three years, they hope to establish a set of standards that would allow for the certification of companies and products that are sustainable in terms of their water use.

That’s something that Puzone at Bazaar de la Paz would welcome. “If you know the question to ask,” she says, “then you can change.”

Whether more information will make a difference for consumers is not clear. While many say they would welcome a new labeling system, some admit that it wouldn’t change their habits.

“A person has a certain amount of energy to worry about things,” says Friedman. “I just don’t have the energy to worry about it. I’m more into saving children.”

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Many everyday items require vast amounts of water to produce. Here are a few examples as calculated by the Water Footprint Network:

  1. glass of beer = 19.8 gallons
  2. glass of wine = 31.7 gallons
  3. cup of coffee = 37 gallons
  4. hamburger = 634 gallons
  5. cotton T-shirt = 713 gallons
  6. sheet of paper = 2.6 gallons

E-mail: jge2103@columbia.edu