Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Virtual Water" - It Can Mean So Much

To Canadians, water is what flows so freely from our taps. We don't think of water very much until, perhaps, somebody sounds the warning about American designs on Canada's supposed bounty of the stuff or we glance at a utility bill.

Most of the world views water much differently. That's because they're running out of it and are scrambling to come up with new sources of water. Sometimes that means tapping into new sources, sometimes it means the construction of ecologically-devastating desalination plants, sometimes it means privatizing water - letting big corporations control the production and distribution of a region's water resource.

All this pressure has given rise to the term "virtual water." Few countries export water as such but almost every country exports virtual water - the water resource it consumes to grow crops or manufacture products for export.

Britain's Royal Academy of Engineering has released a report that concludes a staggering two-thirds of the water that Britain's 60-million people need comes in the form of virtual water "embedded in imported food, clothes and industrial goods." From The Guardian:

"...when people buy flowers from Kenya, beef from Botswana, or fruit and vegetables from parts of Asia and Latin America, they may be exacerbating droughts and undermining countries' efforts to grow food for themselves.

...One kilogram of beef needs 15,000 litres of water to produce, more than 10 times the amount required to produce the same weight of wheat. A T-shirt requires 2,700 litres.

"We must recognise how the UK's water footprint is impacting on global water scarcity. We should ask whether it is right to import green beans – or even roses – from water-stressed countries like Kenya," said professor Peter Guthrie, chair of the group of engineers who compiled the report. "The burgeoning demand for water from developed countries is putting severe pressure on areas that are already short of water. Our water footprint is critical", he said."

"By 2030 demand for food will increase by 30% and for water by 30%. Potentially we have a global crisis," said Guthrie.

It's useful for us to remember our own water footprint because it exposes not just problems abroad but a key vulnerability in our own society. Canadians consume a terrific amount of agricultural products from Mexico and California, both of them becoming very water stressed. California already stands to see 847,000 acres of incredibly productive farmland in the San Joaquin valley go unplanted this year because of drought, a situation that could easily worsen in the near future.

It would be foolish for Canadians not to expect to feel the impacts of that drought - on our grocery store shelves and in the troubling world of water politics. After all, when we buy Californian or Mexican produce, we're importing their water too. That could cause some tension when we then refuse to export Canadian water to their region. The days of cheap strawberries in January may be numbered.

This is another aspect of the environmental dialogue our government needs to but refuses to have with the Canadian people lest it turns us all green or icky or - unruly. Virtual water - "virtual" government.

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