Water in our everyday lives

Water in our everyday lives

We encounter water in our everyday lives in all kinds of ways: we wash ourselves with it, use it for drinking and cooking, as well as for washing our clothes and our living space. After a warm summer’s rain, children enjoy splashing about in puddles, and like to jump in lakes or swimming pools to cool off during holidays. The quantity and quality of water are highly significant for the everyday lives of people all over the globe. There is no life without water.

Global water consumption

Water consumption levels vary widely throughout the world. In Germany, the average daily per capita consumption of water in 2013 was 121 litres, with well over half of it used for personal hygiene and for flushing toilets. In the United States, daily per capita water consumption is up to four times higher. In contrast, people in Somalia have to make do with a mere five litres of water a day. Regional water requirements depend on a number of factors, including population density, economic activities and people’s standard of living.

Much greater quantities of water are used for indirect consumption, for instance water used for economic activities such as agriculture and industry. One measurement of the individual consumption of these quantities is virtual water.

Virtual water – The invisible measurement unit

The amount of water used or contaminated during the production of goods and services is referred to as 'virtual water'. It can vary widely for the same product depending on where and under what circumstances it was manufactured. Depending on the climate conditions, soil composition, season, seed used, and other factors, different amounts of water are needed for cultivating the same crop at two different locations, for example.

But not only location-specific factors are important; the selection of the products also plays a key role in virtual water consumption. For instance, a cup of coffee 'contains' 132 litres of water on average but a cup of tea only 27 litres. Producing a kilogram of beef requires 15,415 litres of water, while producing a kilogram of chicken takes only 4,325 litres. What we consume and where we get our goods influences our individual 'water footprint'.

International trade statistics enable us to infer information about imports and exports of virtual water. Countries such as China export virtual water, for example, in form of water-intensive products like textiles and electronics. Germany imports some 125 cubic gigametres of virtual water from other countries every year. This corresponds to roughly 4,100 litres per person and day. German consumer behaviour is thus directly related to the consumption of water resources throughout the world.

Water in industry – The textile industry

Our clothing also has great impact on water resources and water quality in the producer countries. The textile industry not only consumes large amounts of water for irrigating cotton, it also causes considerable environmental damage. In many places, toxic chemicals used in textile factories are discharged as untreated wastewater and thus end up in rivers and lakes. Cotton growing also contaminates water when pesticides are sprayed and enter groundwater and drinking water through the soil.

The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) counteracts these risks by advocating the introduction of environmental and social standards in the textile industry and by funding projects on the ground, such as the introduction of new process technologies or training measures. These efforts benefit both the environment and the health of the workers.

Calculating your own water footprint

How water-friendly is your own consumer behaviour?

What products are particularly water-intensive and what can consumers do to reduce their own water footprint?

To analyse your habits and create your own water footprint, click  here (in German only).