Clouds condensing over the Pacific Ocean with Anacapa Island in the distance, Ventura, CA (Photo: K.Anderberg, Jan. 6, 2011)

WATER FOOTPRINTS: Hidden Water Costs for Products

By Kirsten Anderberg (
Written January 3, 2014

"Water footprint" is a term used to define all the hidden water consumption required to produce a product. According to the National Geographic Magazine/April 2010 (, it takes 1,857 gallons of fresh water to serve one pound of beef as food, when you add up the water the animal drinks, the water used to grow its food and the water used to clean its waste. Coffee takes 37 gallons of water to produce every cup of coffee. Although our planet is covered with water, 97% of the water is salty and 2% of our fresh water is locked up as snow and ice, which leaves 1% of our planet's fresh water for all our current water uses, which range from crop irrigation and industrial production to cooling nuclear reactors, sewers and drinking/bathing/recreational uses ( Referred to as "blue gold" or "the next oil," competition for fresh water is growing all over the world as we pollute and use more fresh water than is replenished, overdrawing our environmental bank account.

The term "virtual water" was coined by British geographer Tony Allan in the 1990's. He used the term to explain the hidden water footprint for goods and foods. He stumbled onto the concept when he investigated why the Middle East was not having serious water wars. It turns out the reason is the Middle East imports a lot of its food, which is grown using other countries' water. Regions that export more virtual water than they import include the United States, South America and Africa. Regions that import more virtual water than they export include Russia, Asia, Europe and Greenland. Japan imports 15 times more virtual water than it exports. Africa's main virtual water exports to Europe are olive oil, cotton, peanuts, sesame seed products, leathers and hides.

Two thirds of Earth's 1% fresh water is used to grow food. Some foods consume more virtual water than others. A meat diet for humans requires 60% more water use than a vegetarian diet. While it takes 1,857 gallons of fresh water to produce one pound of beef, it takes only 371 gallons to produce one pound of fresh cheese, and even less, 43 gallons, to produce one pound of beans. It takes 31 gallons of water to produce one pound of potatoes and 55 gallons per pound of oranges. Clearly, eating meat consumes monstrous amounts of virtual water. It takes 634 gallons of water to make one hamburger: this rate of water consumption is not sustainable and also creates serious water inequities based on access to economic resources aka class differences. Americans reportedly consume 100 gallons of water in each home per day, while millions of people in the world's poorest countries exist on less than 5 gallons per household per day. Nearly half of the people on Earth do not have water piped into their homes and women in the poorest countries walk an average of 3.7 miles to get water and haul the heavy load home.

While coffee and tea use the same amount of water to grow, there is a lower yield per acre of coffee as compared to tea. Due to this, it takes 37 gallons of water (a typical bathtub full) to produce one cup of coffee but only 9 gallons of water to produce one cup of tea. As for alcohol, it takes 32 gallons of water to make one cup of wine and 20 gallons of water to make a cup of beer; both of which require less virtual water than coffee but more water than tea.

Consumer goods are also using up unsustainable amounts of the 1% fresh water we have on Earth to play with right now. It takes 2,900 gallons of water to make one pair of jeans. Cotton is a water intense crop but it is also heavily fertilized and 15% of the virtual water used to make cotton goods is used only for diluting the fertilized waste water coming from the fields. (This is an excellent argument for buying only organic cotton goods.) The virtual water used to make cotton goods includes not only the irrigation water for a water thirsty crop, and the heavy fertilizer dilution but water is also used to make cotton into cloth. It takes 2,800 gallons of water to make one nonorganic cotton bed sheet and 766 gallons to produce one nonorganic cotton t-shirt. So, by merely wearing nonorganic cotton jeans and a nonorganic cotton t-shirt, and eating a hamburger, you consume 4,300 gallons of virtual water out of the 1% fresh water available on the planet.

Due to exponential increases in the human population, and the overuse of fresh water sources, such as drying out aquifers, Science Magazine said in 2007, "Climate change will permanently alter the landscape of the Southwest, so severely that conditions reminiscent of the Dust Bowl days of the 1930's could become the norm within a few decades." (Did you know that golf course lawns in the U.S. consume 2 billion gallons of water per day?) Scientists have begun a mad rush to locate water in our solar system, primarily making it sound like a search for "life," but I think that water is going to become more and more of a crucial commodity and that scientists are literally looking to outer space, now, to find more water for Earth's needs. I used to think we were involved in space exploration as a means to send humans to the other places in the solar system, but now I see we are simultaneously looking to mine minerals and commodities from these planets, much as European explorers did with Earth long ago. Nothing makes me sadder than the idea of open pit mines toxifying objects near us in outer space or us polluting another planet's water system!

When the land around the Placerita Oil Fields, and other surrounding oil company holdings began to be sold off as residential properties in Los Angeles County's Santa Clarita Valley in the 1950's-60's, they did not sell the mineral/oil rights under that land. One family I know that has lived in the same house in Newhall, CA for almost 50 years has never owned the mineral/oil rights to the land that they own, which their house sits on, due to this. Rights to water are going to become more and more guarded as time goes on, which is why water is now being called "blue gold," in contrast to "black gold," which referred to oil. I have to assume more residential land will be sold without rights to any water which may be discovered underneath it later, the same way oil reserves under homes were protected by the oil industry in the past. Colorado has an interesting situation where the state, itself, claims a right to all water in the atmosphere in the state, thus it has been illegal to simply claim rainwater on your own property for your own uses, as the state claims you are stealing its rain, basically! Only recently has there been a bit of accommodation by the state regarding this situation. Now Colorado residents can collect rainwater from their roofs, and only their roofs, and only if it is a residential property with domestic well water rights and no access to the municipal water supply and the water can only be used for the purposes the well water could be used for. So this is an extreme example of what I was referring to happening in Newhall regarding oil rights under the houses. This is a situation where Colorado, itself, has laid claim to all rain water before it even hits your property (

Some say water is like air; it is essential for all life and should be free. But there are "oxygen bars" in Japan's polluted cities, and even "dog oxygen bars" for pets ( And Americans buy unbelievable amounts of bottled water which is subject to far less testing and inspections than public tap water. Less than one person was assigned to regulate the bottled water industry at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration back in 2009. I am not sure what the situation is now, but it can't be much higher than one person, with all the budget cutbacks. As we continue to pollute water faster than it can dilute itself with clean water and continue to extract more than can replenish itself, water is becoming more of an urgent issue. Even when we have rivers, groundwater, rain and other forms of access to water, often now it is too polluted to use.

The first thing we can do is become aware, as consumers, of the water footprints of our food and goods consumed. (You can get a Virtual Water App for your phone that tells you virtual water costs of items as needed at It takes 1,857 gallons of water for one pound of beef, 756 gallons of water for one pound of pork and 469 gallons for one pound of chicken. You can do the math. Animal products vary in virtual water use: 1,382 gallons of water per pound of sausage, 589 gallons per pound of processed (aka "American") cheese (such as "Velvetta"), 400 gallons per dozen eggs, 371 gallons per pound of real, fresh cheese, 138 gallons per cup of yogurt and 53 gallons per cup of milk. Even by just using real, fresh cheese versus processed "American" cheese, you will save 218 gallons of water per pound of cheese!

There is a hierarchy within fruits and vegetables regarding virtual water use as well. Fruits tend to use more water than vegetables. Figs consume 379 gallons of water per pound of fruit, and 193 gallons of water is the cost for every pound of plums. Avocados use 154 gallons per pound and 103 gallons of water are used for every pound of bananas, 78 gallons per pound of grapes, 55 gallons per pound of oranges, and 33 gallons per pound of strawberries. Vegetables use the least amount of virtual water using only 31 gallons per pound of potatoes, 25 gallons per pound of eggplant, 109 gallons per pound of corn and 43 gallons per pound of beans.

Looking at these numbers, I recommend using beans, avocados, yogurt, cheese and eggs, in that order regarding quantity, for protein, while helping reduce virtual water consumption. Rarely, if ever, should meat be eaten or used. Buy organic cotton products. Drink tea; it consumes -5 times less virtual water than is needed to make coffee, alcohol or milk. These steps may seem futile currently, but as we march into the future, these water footprints are going to turn into water footprint freeways full of congestion and conscious humans should lead the way for others towards responsible water stewardship on the planet. You can help lead us towards a more responsible use of the 1% free fresh water on Earth merely by making wiser food choices.

Note: The numbers used in this article were provided by the April 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine. For a wider list of water footprint statistics, including water footprint calculators for Finland, Kemira, Turkey and the U.S., as well as data and videos on this topic, visit


Colorado State University, Circa 2009 (Accessed Jan. 3, 2014), "Rainwater Collection in Colorado,"
Columbia University/Columbia Water Center Virtual Water Initiative (Accessed Jan. 3, 2014), "Global Virtual Water Trade,"
Fred Pearce, Forbes Magazine, June 19, 2008, "Virtual Water,"
National Geographic Magazine, April 2010 (Plus supplement - "Hidden Water")
Hidden Water Webpage at (Accessed January 2014),
Reuters.Com, Sept. 18, 2007, "Tokyo Oxygen Bar Offers Pick-Me-Up for Pooped Pups,"
United States Geologic Survey (USGS), Accessed Jan. 3, 2014, "The World's Water,"
James Scolari, Ventura County Reporter, June 11, 2009, "H20 Redefined"
Virtual Water Information and App,

For more articles written by Kirsten Anderberg, visit To see a selection of books written by K. Anderberg, visit

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