The obliviousness of water footprints
I was sitting next to a Texas-based businessman from Saudi Arabia on the plane. He was highly amused to see me eating vegetarian. “If you give me vegetarian, I will throw it away and eat you!” he joked and bared his teeth.
I gulped and organised my thoughts on how to use this teachable moment to talk about water footprints without being offensive. He was already well-aware that vegetables were more healthy than meat but didn’t care because he’d rather live short and eat what he loved than live long eating vegetables. He wasn’t even co-relating his numerous health complaints like gout with diet. Caring for animals’ feelings would not cut ice with him because his favourite hobby was hunting.
“How do you like to drink toilet water?” I asked.
“What? Why?” he asked in horror. Then I informed him about the huge amounts of water consumed for growing food needed by livestock reared for conversion to meat and that a kg of beef takes up 15,000 litres of water. I also told him that extreme drought had forced two towns in Texas to go for toilet-to-tap measures. There was just no other source of water available. “Oh boy! Oh boy! Is this really happening?” he exclaimed.
Of course, I assured him that treated wastewater is safe to drink because it is treated to far higher levels of purity than regular water. I also told him about Singapore’s NEWater and how people were perfectly ok with recycled water supplementing conventional sources of water.
Still, the yuck factor sometimes works better than compassion and health when we want to communicate water footprint messages. When it was time to say goodbye, my co-passenger promised to try and cut his meat consumption.
It is interesting to note how most people around the world are so oblivious of their water footprint. One Indian lady I know said, “I use very little water to bathe and flush,” which was of course, admirable. But she had no idea about the water footprint of her meat-based diet, clothes, bags, shoes, gadgets, frequent vacations and so on.
We still have a long way to go in bridging the gap in understanding of water issues around the world. One more World Water Day has gone by but despite the best efforts of agencies, the messages being communicated are tired clichés like “Water is life” with no concrete steps to actually make people realise the need to reduce consumption of factory-produced goods; factory-produced beef, lamb and pork; and to recycle water.
Admittedly, we are in a far better place today than we were when I struggled to find vegetarian food at World Water Forum held in Kyoto in 2003. It prompted me to write an editorial asking why the water sector was talking about footprints when it could not even offer good vegetarian choices. Today, things are different with people making a beeline for vegetarian food queues.
Perhaps a day will come when resource footprints will really matter to everyone.