Water is a critical substance that is essential for sustaining life on this planet. The herculean efforts by the space exploring countries to find evidence of water in other planets are mainly to see whether they are habitable places for human beings. As most of the living systems have water content at levels between 55% and 78% depending on the body size, there are minimum requirements below which survival is not possible. A daily consumption of 1 ml of water for every calorie of food consumed is a bench mark standard agreed by many experts, which works out to about 2 liters a day for an average healthy adult. Intake of too much water can cause water intoxication leading eventually to death, while too little can contribute to dehydration and other lethal consequences.
Water bodies in the earth constitute more than 70% of the surface area and though there is abundance of this material, the only problem in utilizing them is the salt content in most of these water sources. Oceans contain more than 97% of the water on earth and the salinity of this water can be as high as 4%. Remaining 3% only has to bear the burden of meeting the fresh water needs of about 7 billion people in this world. While 0.9% of fresh water sources are locked up under the ground (30%) and in polar ice caps and glaciers (70%), remaining portion is spread over lakes (87%) and swamps (11%) in different continents. Over decades fresh water availability has been shrinking alarmingly because of increasing population and higher usage as demanded by the modern industrial society. In 1850 water availability was 43000 Cubic Meter (CM) per person per year which dramatically declined to 9000 CM in 1990. There is wide disparity in water availability in different countries. While countries like Canada, Norway etc have more than 1,00,000 CM some countries in North Africa and Middle East gets only 100 CM.
Water usage also shows wide disparity amongst nations with average American splurging on 1600 CM, European using 725 CM while the African has to be content with 250 CM. It is estimated that the minimum water need of a person is about 40 to 60 liters a day for domestic use though more than half the population in this planet does not have access to even a fraction of this quantity. Food and agriculture may be the single largest user of water and according to some estimates more than 70% of fresh water goes for irrigation. Here again there is some disparity in efficiency of water use as most developing countries draw more than 90% of their water resources for irrigation while in technologically advanced countries irrigation demand is less than 30%.
Profligacy of water use can be shocking to the conscience of every denizen on this planet living already with lot of uncertainties about future, especially dangers from man-made environmental degradation. If one wants to dramatize the relation between water consumption and some of our day to day activities, following illustrations will suffice. The cup that cheers viz Coffee requires about 140 liters of water to produce while its cousin viz tea requires 30 liters of water in its production cycle! It may be shocking to know that a quantity of 3400 is required for getting 1kg of rice, 1300 liters for 1kg of wheat or barley and 15,500 liters for 1kg of beef. This poses a serious challenge to water conservationists as to how to sensitize the world regarding the criticality of water for survival. The two major players involved in this scenario are the industrial sector including agriculture and the consumer community. While mandatory regulations can be put in place regarding scientific norms of water usage, who will generate future technologies for reduced water consumption for various industrial processes? Obviously the governments will have to do this through financial incentives and direct economic subsidies.
There is another area which needs consideration for driving the forces that will work continuously to achieve reduction of water used by the industry and that calls for mandatory information on water use per kg of any product to be declared on the label by all industries without exception. This will enable the consumers to shun those which are water guzzlers while favoring those with credible water saving credentials. if water conservationists have their say world should have a "water foot print" concept similar to the "carbon foot print" system which is being followed voluntarily by some food manufacturers in some countries. The much acclaimed "Energy Star" rating system that grades home appliances and electronic equipment based on electricity use efficiency. evolved by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1992, has almost become a global standard adopted in many countries. Of course in the case of energy utilization grading, consumer has an economic interest in the form of reduced energy bill which may automatically make the system universally acceptable.
The critical question that will have to be addressed is whether a standard methodology capable of producing results that will be consistent is available to day for assessing water utilization. In absence of such a universal system to estimate water input in various operations involved in manufacturing a particular product by different people in different countries, only chaos will rule giving room for unscrupulous players to misuse this concept claiming low water utilization by their products in front of the label. Global cooperation in evolving a dependable assessment technology, preferably under the aegis of UNIDO, WHO and FAO, will go a long way to introduce compulsory "water foot print" labeling over a period of time, say in about a decade.