Footprints in the Water

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Valuing water, photo: Steve Wall/flickr

Yes, water. This seemingly endless resource that covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. A resource that in a profound way forms the very core of who we are and how we live and yet gets little attention and even less press – perhaps precisely because of its ubiquity. Water, we tell ourselves, rains down from the sky and shoots through our kitchen taps; water is everywhere and used for everything. We can’t possibly be leaving any kind of dent in its incessant flow, let alone calculate any ‘footprint’ associated with it?

Yet this omnipresence is profoundly misleading. The water that we can easily use and consume, the fresh water of this world, only makes up about 2,6 percent of total supplies. An increasingly scarce and contested resource particularly in the poorer, more drought-prone parts of this world, fresh water, many experts believe, will become the future frontier of clashes, conflicts and even wars. Papers warning of ‘water wars’ in the Nile river basin or in the Mekong Delta are increasingly common, indicating that the political science community, not just ecologists, is beginning to take note.

Beyond expert circles, however, the issue still struggles to make it to the center of popular consciousness and debate as a key, if not the key challenge of the future. Water and water scarcity are issues that elude most people’s thoughts because in richer countries at least we are rarely faced with its limits. However, nearly half of the world’s population already suffers from some form of water-related distress, either due to lack of access to safe drinking water (an estimated 884 million people) or because of unsafe sanitation practices (for more than 2.5 billion people). An estimated 3.5 million people die every year due to illnesses related to poor water or related hygiene standards. In an important, if still primarily symbolic move, the UN recently declared clean water a human right in an attempt to bring the issue to the forefront of public discussion.

An unusual source pushed me to look at this issue in more detail: a ‘country branding’ report published by a group of eminent Finns about the future of Finland in a changing and increasingly competitive world. Taking the profound implications of our water-intensive lifestyle as one of its starting points, particularly the (often unnecessary) usage of what the report terms ‘blue water’, i.e. fresh water not drizzling down from the skies (this, in turn, is ‘green water‘), its unique and practical approach was fresh and inspiring. Identifying Finland’s unique water resources (187.000 lakes) and related know-how as a core (national) strength, the report identifies ways in which these can be leveraged in the future as a model of sustainable water management and usage anywhere in the world. The message is clear: (ideally) every Finn should get involved and take responsibility for the furthering of national strengths and key resources, including water. And this sense of responsibility and understanding should be exported and leveraged globally.

One of the key points in the report is this: Due to the prevalence of water usage in all aspects of our lives, from the production of the food we buy, to the way in which our houses are supplied, and to how the balance of the global ecosystem is maintained, should water not be considered the meter of all natural resource usage? Should we not see our individual and collective water footprints as the measure of our ability to live in an increasingly sustainable way in the future?

The report is full of interesting and at times shocking statistics: 70 percent of the world’s water supplies often in the form of blue water (fresh water) is used in agriculture; the production of one kilogram of meat uses up about 16,000 liters of water in its life cycle from the farm to your kitchen, while a cup of coffee uses up 140 liters. But it is also full of illuminating and encouraging solutions from the banning of bottled water in public offices and events, to the use of rainwater in agriculture and the plumbing of new homes, to more strict regulations that ensure that the water resources we have stay clean and potable. The report goes on to note that Finland, like most countries in this world, still has a long way to go in terms of minimizing its water or energy footprints, yet  its successful initiatives aimed at cleaning up polluted bodies of water in the past decades can serve as templates for action across the world.

Even more ambitiously, the report outlines initiatives such as the establishment of (Finnish) ‘Water Protection Forces’ that could be mobilized as mediators and problem-solvers in diplomatic crises related to water. Peace negotiators, the report argues, should work hand-in-hand with engineering and ecological experts in solving water conflicts of the future in truly multidisciplinary ways. It even suggests, in the interest of making ‘water footprints’ more visible in our discourse, establishing a labeling system on food products that not only shows calories, but also the unique water footprint of each product, even if there is no water in the product itself. Indeed one company has already introduced it, setting the stage for a world in which the true value of water is at the core of our daily decision-making and choices. It’s about time.

For more information, read the Drink Finland section of the Mission for Finland report.

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