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Forget about 'water footprint' and enjoy your shower Add to ...

Keith Head is HSBC professor of Asian commerce, strategy and business economics division, Sauder School of Business, UBC

A cartoon in a recent New Yorker shows a gangster stopping his colleague from shooting a prisoner with the admonition, “Wait--use a knife. It’s greener.” Just a few pages later, another cartoon depicts a member of the crowd surrounding Jesus asking a disciple distributing loaves of bread and fish, “Did Jesus create these locally?”

The urban consumer has a lot to worry about these days. 'Am I recycling and composting enough?' 'Am I minimizing my carbon footprint by avoiding goods shipped from distant sources?' Now to add to all these concerns, a Facebook friend posts that we should also be minimizing our “water footprints.” Don’t know your water footprint?

The National Geographic has helpfully provided a water footprint calculator. There you provide information on the frequency and duration of your showers, the conditions that lead you to flush the toilet, and the amount of various types of food in your diet (allegedly, 1800 gallons of water are used to produce one pound of beef).

At the end of the questionnaire, you find out whether you are above or below the average American, who, you discover, consumes twice the global average. In case you’re wondering about Canadians, our water withdrawals are about 10 per cent lower on a per-head basis but still way above the global average.

No one is going to advocate wastefulness. But, for many of us, cutting back significantly on water use would lower our quality of life. Is it worth it? The key point to keep in mind when answering this question is that water use is fundamentally different from carbon emissions. When you put more CO2 in the atmosphere, you add to the problem of global warming. On the other hand, water is a locally provided renewable resource (Vancouver’s reservoirs were filling with rainwater as I wrote this).

Water is metered and we pay when we consume it, in contrast to CO2, where political resistance to carbon taxes in both the U.S. and Canada results in a situation where the atmosphere is used as a free dumping area. To decide if your water use is causing an environmental problem, you should focus on local, not global conditions. Canada has 88,336 cubic metres per person of “actual renewable water resources,” according to the World Resources Institute. This is eleven times the world average. We can afford to be a little profligate with our water use.

Moreover, industry accounts for 69 per cent of Canada’s water use. One reason our industry use of water is so high (in the U.S. and Europe it is about 50 per cent) is because of our greater reliance on hydroelectric energy. There’s no shame in a higher-than-average water footprint in a country where water is abundant and we're using it to produce electricity that lowers our carbon footprint.

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