Imagine a day without “virtual water,” or all the water it takes to make the food, energy and consumer goods you depend on.
It’s not hard to imagine a day without tap water to brew a cup of coffee, take a shower or water your plants. Imagining a day without “virtual water”? Not so intuitive.
But virtual water is every bit as crucial to making your life possible as tap water. Virtual water is the unseen water it takes to produce the goods, services and activities that you and use regularly. That virtual water might be “hidden” to you, the end-user, but it’s actual water consumed throughout the value chain – the chain of activities it took to create just about every product or service imaginable.
When you trace it back, that virtual water does have a source. No matter the sector – agriculture, energy or manufacturing – they all depend on water. The importance of that virtual water will be sketched out below. We’ll start with agriculture, since it’s the largest water consumer of any sector.
The Ogallala Aquifer is a useful example of agricultural water use because it’s the primary water source for one of the central agricultural hubs in the United States.
Also called the High Plains Aquifer, it’s one of the world’s largest aquifer systems located in the American Great Plains region, underlying parts of eight states including South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Widely considered the US bread basket, groundwater from the Ogallala supports almost one-fifth of US-produced wheat, corn, cotton and cattle.
There’s a good chance that you have purchased an item with ingredients grown there, whether it’s bread, dairy, beef, even sweets and gasoline, since highly processed corn goes to make corn syrup and ethanol.By consuming that bread or beef, it means that you have also consumed all the virtual water required to produce it.
All of these food items have substantial water footprints – particularly beef – and how and where they’re produced matters. For instance, most sections of the Ogallala are in steep decline which means groundwater pumped to the surface for irrigation is exceeding the capacity of rain and snow to replenish the water supply. This is what’s known as an aquifer being “over-exploited. This unsustainable use of Ogallala groundwater has pushed even the most diehard growers to question the viability of High Plains farming before their wells run dry.
In general, when you use energy, you’re using virtual water. That’s because most types of electricity generation and fossil fuel extraction rely heavily on water to operate. Whether we’re describing hydropower that needs river flows to spin turbines at dams or thermoelectric power plants fired by coal, natural gas or nuclear that require steam and cooling, water crucially makes the power go round. The vast majority of thermoelectric power plants withdraw huge amounts of water to power, circulate and cool the equipment, which is the reason most are located near a body of water. On the other hand, renewable energy sources such as solar PV and wind tend to have much smaller water requirements, including for construction and once operations commence.
As we’ve witnessed with the extreme, long-term drought on the Colorado River, low water flows matter for electricity, in this case hydropower. Because of steep water level declines in Lake Mead, the threat of hydropower restrictions are a genuine concern, with water risk of both water scarcity and flooding for hydropower dams growing globally, according to a recent study.
At the beginning of the energy cycle, fossil fuels and their extraction all have sizable water footprints, in addition to carbon footprints. The conventional extraction of natural gas, oil and coal take large volumes of water to produce, while unconventional techniques to extract the same fossil fuels take even greater water volumes. For instance, hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) of natural gas and oil as well as the production of oil sands are all more water-intensive than their conventional production. In addition, the water footprint pollution impacts, which can be significant for oil and gas operations. Conflicts over scarce water for fracking have occurred between farmers and oil and gas companies in Colorado and other parts of the arid western US, with prices for water rising and people wondering whether to privilege food or fuel.
Like the other processes, the manufacture of consumer and industrial goods are filled with virtual water. In a global economy, a finished product often needs inputs or components from supply chains that stretch around a city, region or the world. At each step in a supply chain there is virtual water embedded in parts that make a whole.
Take smartphones and their supply chain, for example. Raw metals are mined from African countries and turned into miniature parts. Plastics come from oil and then are formed to create the structure and adhesives in China. Microchips are manufactured in Taiwan and then all the hundreds, if not thousands of parts are assembled in China. Even this extremely simplistic representation of the manufacturing process gives a sense of its complexity.
In the end, the water footprint of one smartphone is 3,190 gallons (12,760 liters). Just one smartphone sitting in your pocket.
Many companies are starting to understand that clean, steady water supplies are a prerequisite to a functioning business. They focus more on virtual water in their supply chains as governance dysfunction and climate change makes water scarcity, flooding and water pollution an immediate business priority. Unfortunately, not all companies value one of their most precious operating resources, and sometimes their operations are disrupted. One incident in the dry climes of Mexicali, Mexico is instructive, as a major brewing conglomerate was set to build a giant brewery, but water scarcity concerns among city residents forced the company to move to another location.
Virtual Water in Your Pocket
Like that smartphone sitting in your pocket, there is no way to function in the modern, high-tech world without water, not in energy production and not in something as crucial to our lives as farming. Virtual water makes our lives happen. Whether you see it or not, virtual water can’t be ignored and it’s literally bringing you your daily bread. Imagine our world and your day without it.
By Kai Olson-Sawyer