Surprising Ways to Save—and Waste—Water

When it comes to water usage, Americans tend to slurp rather than sip. Like Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain,” we blithely splash around in puddles as if we have more water than we know what to do with.

As a result, Americans use—and waste—far more water than most other countries. In fact, only Bolivia and Niger use more water per capita (among countries with populations of more than 5 million people), according to the Water Footprint Network. Within industrialized countries, WFN reports that per-capita water usage ranges from 1,250 to 2,850 cubic meters per year; the United Kingdom falls near the bottom of that range at 1,258 m3/year; the United States is near the top at 2,842 m3/year.

Why the disparity? The problem is not that Americans drink more beverages or that Britons take fewer showers—although those practices would clearly impact water usage. Instead, the problem lies in the “hidden water” we don’t even realize that we’re using and that we only pay for indirectly. Consider these statistics from the GRACE Communications Foundation:

  • It takes 80,000 gallons of water to produce the steel in a single car.
  • It takes 1,320 gallons of water to produce a pound of cotton.
  • It takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef.

That last number is especially eye-opening considering that total annual meat consumption in the United States is nearly 25 billion pounds, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and soybeans—another valuable source of protein—requires 89 percent less water per pound to grow.

To help Americans better understand how they use both direct and hidden water, the GRACE Communications Foundation has developed a water footprint calculator, which is accessible at http://www.gracelinks.org/1408/water-footprint-calculator. By entering basic information on home water usage, driving and shopping habits, diet, and other practices, you can quickly learn calculate your total water usage and see how it compares to the U.S. average of 2,200 gallons per person per day. As you work through the questions, the calculator constantly updates your individual and household scores, letting you see the impact of each lifestyle choice. (You can even try different responses to see how they would change your water usage. For example, going vegan would cut a meat eater’s daily usage in half.)

Once you’ve worked your way through the calculator, you can see your detailed scorecard and access tips for saving more water, such as installing low-flow faucets or taking your car to the car wash instead of washing it in the driveway. You can also see how your usage stacks up with your neighbors around the globe.

Understanding the global impact of water use and abuse is becoming more important than ever. According to the United Nations, by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions due to population growth, increased usage, and climate change. By learning to live simply, Americans can truly help others simply live.