In the face of the climate crisis, the importance of water care has become a recurring theme. Water saving campaigns tend to focus on people's everyday activities such as taking quick showers, not washing cars with hoses or using water-saving toilets. While these recommendations are sound, the campaigns rarely talk about large industries that indiscriminately use vast amounts of water.
The term "water footprint" was coined by Arjen Hoekstra, a Dutch University of Twente professor. It serves to estimate how much water goes to produce goods and services. According to Water Footprint Network, a person in Latin America has a water footprint of 4,150 litres per day. The United States has 7,800 litres per day. The European Union has 5,300 litres per day and 3,300 litres in China.
Only 0.5% of water is within human reach. As a result, two-thirds of the people on our planet live in areas where access to it is a problem. Water scarcity affects every continent, leaving 1.1 billion people without access. By 2025, half of the world's population will live in water-scarce areas, expectedly.
Although the meat industry is often considered the most water-intensive primary sector, the truth is that agriculture is the most water-intensive industry. According to the World Bank, 70% of global freshwater withdrawals go to agriculture, so the impact is high. Specifically, the cultivation of cotton, wheat, maize, rice and sugar cane has a critical effect on water.
The fashion industry is the second most water-intensive industry on the planet. It uses about 79 billion cubic metres annually, mainly due to the high water demand for cotton, the primary material of our clothing. It takes about 20,000 litres to produce one T-shirt and one pair of jeans to provide a person with enough to drink for almost two decades.
Meat production uses a lot of water, almost a third of the water footprint of total agricultural production. Beef is the most water-intensive food, followed by lamb, pork, goat, poultry, eggs and cheese—cattle, pigs, sheep and aquaculture rate as having a critical impact on the vital liquid.
The beverage sector produces juices, soft drinks, beers, and other beverages. Along with the water required to make the liquid itself, additives are an even more intensive aspect (the industry needs agricultural products such as barley, sugar, coffee and fruits). The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER) mentioned that 19 companies reported a total water use of 746 billion litres in 2017.
In Mexico, companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Bimbo consume 133 billion litres of water in their food and beverage production processes per year. A report published by the Coca-Cola Company in 2021 states that the company consumed 195 276 million litres globally during that year. Approximately 20% of this total came from regions with high or extremely high water scarcity, equivalent to just over 39 million litres.
Similarly, the energy industry (fossil and nuclear) consumes large amounts of water. Global energy production consumes approximately 52 billion cubic metres each year. Water serves the cooling processes mainly by fossil fuel and nuclear power plants that need it. Gas extraction and oil refining are considered specifically water-critical activities.
Another water-intensive industry is construction, as producing one tonne of cement requires more than 5,100 litres, while one tonne of steel requires almost 235,000 litres. Likewise, the automotive industry consumes large amounts of this vital liquid. The production of a single car requires nearly 148,000 litres, equivalent to the consumption of an adult person (3 litres per day) for 135 years.
The importance of water care is a recurring theme and water saving campaigns tend to focus on people's everyday activities. However, industries account for approximately 92% of total consumption. More water goes into things than into human consumption. It shows the responsibility for water care rests mainly on the shoulders of the large corporations that run the industries mentioned above and others, not just on individuals' daily decisions. The offshoring of production means that these industries are engaged in plundering developing countries' water. The rich consume, and the poor go without clean water or any water at all.