Water use - in depth

Water is a precious resource, yet Europeans still waste huge amounts of food and other products which require a lot of water to make. The average European consumes 4,750 litres of water per day. The majority of this is embedded in the products we consume.

Water resources are becoming increasingly scarce in many regions of the world, yet paradoxically, many countries with low levels of fresh water give away a large part of their water supply in exports to water rich countries.

Countries and regions that consume a lot of water, like Europe, need to start measuring their water footprint in order to reduce water consumption. The water footprint allows Europe to robustly monitor the total amount of water consumed, including the embedded water of products and services.

'Embedded' water

As net importers of materials and products, Europe's indirect or embedded water consumption is significant. Europeans consume more water indirectly through the consumption of products that require water for their manufacture than they do directly for cleaning, bathing and drinking.

For example, one litre of bottled water requires nine litres of water during the bottling process; and 140 litres are required to produce one cup of coffee. This water use does not come without cost: 2,700 litres are used to manufacture one cotton t-shirt, in an industry that is characterised by high levels of electricity consumption and environmental pollution, and low social and environmental standards.

Trading water

The volume of global trade has increased dramatically in recent decades, and the amount of embedded or 'virtual' water used is steadily rising, as many goods require water for their production. Importing water-intensive products can significantly increase a country's water consumption. Moreover, importing water-intensive goods from water-scarce countries can increase the pressure on local water resources.

In most cases, the most material-efficient countries also have the highest consumption levels. Resource-efficiency improvements alone have been insufficient in achieving absolute reductions in resource use. The environmental, economic and social problems inherent in the overconsumption of the world's resources make an absolute reduction in resource use the only viable option.

Friends of the Earth Europe calls on Europe to measure water use along the whole production chain of goods and services. This 'water footprint' is an essential step towards reducing Europe's overall water consumption.