Tag Archives: water management

Jane Nethercote, Crikey (Australia)

So you think that your shower bucket is saving the planet. Think again. Most of your water waste is around your waist.

Through eating and drinking, the average Briton consumes about 3,400L of water a day, according to Hidden Waters [PDF], a recent report from Waterwise. Australian irrigation scientist Professor Wayne Meyer reckons it’s more like 3,000L per meal, or 10,000L of water a day in the Western world.

Everything you eat and drink contains “embedded water” – the so-called hidden water it takes to bring produce from the field to your table. But not all foods are created equal. It takes a lot of water to grow food, and then “much more water to feed and service the animals that we eat”, says Waterwise’s head of research Joanne Zygmunt.

Which means vegetarians have a right to feel smug: a leafy diet contains about half the embedded water content of a meat-lovers regime. Not that anything is ever that simple. There’s methane output too of course, and here, some might venture that vegetarians are bigger contributors.

Natural rainfall (green water) plays a large part in embedded water content – only 15% of crops produced worldwide are irrigation-fed — but 70% of global freshwater withdrawals are for irrigation (blue water). And in Australia in 2003-04, the most extensive use of irrigation in agriculture was for pasture for grazing (ABS), not for crops. Despite being the driest continent on earth, Australia is a net exporter of embedded water. Water that we don’t have.

So how do you trim your water use? The Crikey Water Diet can help. Our motto: A moment on the lips, a life of bucket trips.

To kick off, here are some general rules, with expert commentary from Kelvin Montagu of the Cooperative Research Centre for Irrigation Futures.

  • Find food close to the source. “The closer your food is to the source of all food, photosynthesis, the less hidden water you will be using. All the food we eat is originally produced by plants as they grab carbon dioxide out of the air and produce sugars via photosynthesis, losing a lot of water in the process.” 
  • Green should be seen. “If you are dead keen on reducing the amount of hidden water in your food then eat leafy vegetables. By doing this you minimise the amount of food value lost as the original sugars are changed to more complex foods – but there is a limit!”
  • Fruits and grains reduce the pain. “The next best is to eat fruits and then grains which will have more hidden water than vegetables. This is because there is a cost to the plant in transporting, making new more complex compounds and storing them in the fruits and grains.”
  • If it moves, lose it. “The real big jump in hidden water comes when another animal gets involved. A lot of the food values are lost in the conversion of the original plant into the products from animals such as cheese, eggs and finally meat.” It’s estimated that one kilogram of beef has 50,000-100,000L of embedded water, more than a backyard pool, as Des Houghton notes in the Courier-Mail.
  • Where did it come from? There are many variables in food production and embedded water can vary significantly depending on country (or even region), as well as the aridity or humidity of the atmosphere. A kilogram of tomatoes produced in the UK has an average embedded water content of eight litres, but a kilo from Indonesia contains about 340 litres.

Originally published in Crikey – 26 March 2007.

Kader Asmal

Mixing water, human rights and leadership – the Kader Asmal legacy

Chairing a conference can be a lot of hard work with a few minutes of fame at the beginning and end – ask the current IAL2011 Chair, Chris Thompson. But for me one of the highlights of chairing 2010’s One Water: Many Futures conference was hosting our two overseas keynote speakers, Professor Kader Asmal from South Africa and Sandra Postel from USA. Both provided insightful, challenging and positive views from the outside looking in.

Almost a year to the day after the conference I heard of the passing of Kader Asmal. We were indeed most fortunate to have heard from such an eloquent, outspoken and colourful character as Kader.

Kader Asmal became involved in water management through some dramatic events in recent South African history. It was an unusual, but some considered inspired, choice by Nelson Mandela to appoint Kader as his first water minister in 1994.

It was a challenge that he relished: “my relationship with water use and management has been one of the most creative and exciting aspects of a chequered and full life”.

As a human rights lawyer, Kader brought a unique perspective to the redrafting of the South Africa’s Water Act. The act introduced the “Reserve” to meet the basic needs of all people and the ecosystem, and placed this as the most important share of the water resource. It also dramatically changed the way the natural resource was viewed and managed. As he explained, “The fact that the National Water Act placed the Reserve above industry and irrigation does not mean that these sectors are less important, it just emphasises that there are constraints to development set by the environment, and we need to recognise those limitations, a key principle in sustainability”.

One evening last year, Kader was guest of honour at a parliament, this time in NSW rather South Africa. He urged those attending the Water Leaders Dinner to take a greater world leadership role. “The management of our precarious and dwindling water resource is likely to be the barometer for managing the economy in general under conditions of resource constraints. Are we up to this test? I hope so.”

Both our international guests were impressed with Australia’s progress and the level of discussion across the industry. With so many challenges and so much happening on the home front it’s easy for us to get self absorbed. What we are doing is leading the world in many areas of water management. We are being watched!

It would be a fitting tribute to Kader Asmal if we could increase the cooperation between Australia and South Africa to expand our connections beyond rugby and cricket to learn from each other with respect to water management.

I will leave the last words to Kader. “I also propose a trade. Please send back our water sector professionals – we need them at home – and you can take all your eucalypts and wattles back.”

Note. You can view Kader Asmal’s presentation on water management, “Responsible transformation of water management in an era of scarcity: achieving multiple objectives in a complex and dynamic content”.