Women & The Future of Water

The NextWomen Sustainability & Clean Tech Theme

Guest post by Wendy J. Pabich. 

We all know that available, clean freshwater is becoming increasing scarce. This is a problem for people, ecosystems, businesses, and communities.

For women around the globe, water stress is especially problematic. Women collectively spend hundreds of millions of hours each day gathering water for domestic use. Girls often miss school to help bring water to their families and to find sanitary facilities. Gary White, cofounder of Water.org, estimates that the associated lost productivity is greater than the combined hours worked in a week by employees at Walmart, United Parcel Service, McDonald’s, IBM, Target, and Kroger. 

Not only are women profoundly impacted by water scarcity, but we also are uniquely positioned to help solve the problem. Here’s why. 

Much of our global water stress comes from inefficient water use in and water pollution from agriculture and industry, which in turn is driven by consumer demand. There’s no doubt that rising population and the drive towards a higher standard of living in underdeveloped regions is increasing global demand for products and services. It is also true, however, that those of us who live in the developed world are responsible for a far greater share of global resource consumption. Take only our impact on water supplies. The goods and services we consume—the food, clothing, electricity, gasoline, household, and other products—all require tremendous volumes of water to produce. Each has a water footprint, or that volume of freshwater used both directly and indirectly to produce it. Water is required to grow crops, which we eat directly but which are also used to feed animals that provide us meat, leather and other products.

Raising a pound of beef requires roughly 1,500 gallons of water. Producing a pound of carrots requires about 6.5 gallons of water and a cup of coffee, 37 gallons of water.

A pair of blue jeans requires about 2,200 gallons of water, primarily to grow the cotton. Gasoline requires about 13 gallons of water per gallon of gasoline, electricity, about 25 gallons per kilowatt-hour. And, on and on. All told, the annual water footprint of the average American is about 750,000 gallons, more than twice the global average. Many European nations are not far behind. 

Because women are often primarily responsible for making household purchasing decisions, we also possess the power to make choices about what and how much we consume, and we can influence the types of products and services that are available in the marketplace. We can reduce our own water footprints by choosing to be more judicious about our food purchases and use food before it spoils. We can shut off the lights when we’re not using them and choose energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances. We can drive less, commune more, eat more vegetables and less meat.

Further, in the same way that the organic food movement was born of consumer demand, we can push for products and services that are produced using more water-efficient processes.

For some time now, we have been seeing water efficiency improvements in industry. At its semiconductor plant in Burlington, Vermont, IBM was able to reduce water use by one third by using sensors that measure a variety of water parameters, allowing them to fine-tune their operations. Coca Cola has developed a treatment system that allows them to reuse process water for cleaning and bottle washing, cutting water use by 35 percent. Beer makers, including MillerCoors and Heineken, are reducing water use by revamping cooling systems to reuse water and working with farmers to increase water use efficiency. 

Many of these advances are about bottom-line efficiencies and managing corporate risk. Recently, however, we are also beginning to see consumer product companies responding to public concern about water. For example, Levi’s has developed a Water<Less Jean that eliminates nearly all water use in the finishing process by using dry stones for stone washing and ozone treatment rather than water. This is not a panacea, as the majority of the water used to produce blue jeans is associated with growing cotton, but it is an impressive start. We might look to companies like Patagonia as examples of how to move the needle. In the early 1990s, the company commissioned an environmental impact study of the four top fibers used in its products. Stunned to learn that traditional grown cotton had an environmental impact similar to that of petroleum-based fibers, Patagonia successfully embarked on a journey to help change that. By working with cotton growers, gins, spinners, weavers, and cloth manufacturers, they encouraged and secured a reliable source of organic cotton. We can do the same for water by taking responsibility for our personal direct water use and larger water footprints and by encouraging change in our companies and in the marketplace. 

Plus, as we all know, women introduce a different energy into families, communities, companies. We are healers, organic thinkers, and connectors, and we can use these gifts to bring more holistic solutions to difficult problems. 

Wendy J. Pabich is an environmental scientist, educator, adventurer and artist obsessed with all things water. She is the founder of Water Futures (www.waterfuturesinc.com) which provides strategic advice to companies, governments, farmers, investors and environmental organizations looking to secure a brighter water future. She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from the Parsons Water Resources Laboratory at MIT, and is the author of Taking on Water: How One Water Expert Challenged Her Inner Hypocrite, Reduced Her Water Footprint (Without Sacrificing a Toasty Shower), and Found Nirvana (www.waterdeva.com). She serves on the Board of Directors of High Country News, on the Levy Advisory Board for the Blaine County Land, Water and Wildlife Fund, and as an Advisor to The Wild Gift.

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