Under Pressure. How our material consumption threatens the planet’s water resources

Lutter S., Polzin, C., Giljum, S., Pálfy, T., Patz, T., Dittrich, M., Kernegger, L., Rodrigo, A. (2011)

This report looks at material consumption and water use and how they are interrelated. An increasing number of studies look at the levels of material extraction, trade and consumption. Yet, so far, the connection between materials and other resources, such as water, tends to be less well understood. This report, the second in the natural resource consumption series (following the 2009 report “Overconsumption? Our use of the world‘s natural resources.”), aims to raise awareness of these connections, and to contribute to the debate on resource use through various examples illustrating how water is consumed.

Water is required for almost every step of material flow. Around half of all renewable and accessible freshwater is used for growing food, providing drinking water and producing energy and other products. In Europe, almost half of all water abstracted is used for cooling processes by the energy sector. The rest is used for agriculture, public water supply and industry.

There are vast regional differences in material and water consumption. For example, the average North American citizen consumes the largest amount of water (7700l per day) and materials (100 kg per day) in the world. In comparison, the average African citizen is consuming least – 3400l of water and 11 kg of materials per day. The water footprint from our consumption habits is significantly greater than that from our direct water use. Significant amounts of goods consumed in Europe, such as food and other agricultural products, are grown and produced elsewhere. Paradoxically, many countries with low levels of fresh water use a large part of their water supply on the production of exports to water rich countries. Rising material extraction and water abstraction is linked to growing international trade in recent decades. As worldwide trade steadily increases, so does the amount of embedded or virtual water used, as many goods require water for their production processes. Industrialised countries and, more recently, emerging economies have increased their net imports of resources, which tend to come from the developing world.

In most cases, the most material-efficient countries also have the highest consumption levels. Resource efficiency improvements alone have so far been insufficient in achieving absolute reductions in resource use. As water resources are becoming increasingly scarce in many regions of the world, it is critical that we use them more efficiently and economically at every level – in industry and agriculture, at home and also in water supply systems.

In a world of finite resources, we must address the link between resource use, economic growth and prosperity in our societies. Our model of growth depends on high levels of continuous consumption. However, this system is characterised by growing inequalities acrossthe world and by alarming levels of resource use by a smallminority of the global population. Urgent and fundamental changes are required to the way our economies manage natural resources and the services these provide. It is therefore essential that decision-makers create a policy framework that penalises unsustainable practices and rewards resource-efficient behaviour, making a decrease in resource use both economically and politically more attractive.

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