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Italy’s Record Water Consumption

Every Italian uses 215 litres a day. Italy is world’s fifth-largest importer of “blue gold”For every glass of wine we drink, we consume 120 litres of water. One egg is equivalent to 135 litres. When we pull on a cotton T-shirt, we are consuming 2,000 litres.

And if we order a 150-gram hamburger for lunch, we should know that it cost 2,400 litres. How is this so? The explanation is reasonably intuitive. You just have to think of the water that irrigated the vineyard, the water it took to farm the hen, the water needed to cultivate the cotton and the water consumed by the bullock before it was slaughtered at the age of three.

Virtual water
This new scientific perspective was presented by the WWF at the 2008 World Water Week, which ended a few days ago in Stockholm. The approach aims to link personal consumption to water use. Experts talk about the virtual water embedded in foodstuffs, clothing and services.

On average, every Italian uses 215 litres of water a day for drinking and washing but actual consumption is 30 times higher if we take into account the virtual water used to make the food we eat and the clothes we wear. The total comes to some 6,500 litres of water per head.

Every day. This is the highest figure in the world, apart from the United States, and only 30% of that water comes from Italian sources. Most of it – some 70% – comes from abroad, embedded in the goods exchanged in international commerce. Italy is the fifth-largest importer of water on the planet.

Transported water
Take beef, for example. On average, cattle are slaughtered at three years of age and yield about 200 kilograms of beef. In those three years, the animal will have consumed 1,300 kilograms of wheat, maize and soya, and grazed on or been fed more than 7,200 kilograms of fibre. It will have drunk more than 24 cubic metres of water.

A further seven cubic metres will have been needed to keep the animal and related farm services clean. When you tot it all up, one kilogram of beef contains 15,500 litres of water. Let’s suppose that the animal was farmed in Argentina and then sold in a butcher’s shop in Italy. All the water that crosses the ocean in those steaks is virtually imported. Michele Candotti, the director general of WWF Italia, says:

“Many of the products that we consume each day come from parts of the world where water resources are already at emergency level”. The only countries that import more water than Italy are Brazil, Mexico, Japan and China while the most significant vectors are agricultural products, especially rice, wheat and maize.

Blue gold
Scientists have settled on the term “footprint” to indicate the volume of water necessary to produce the goods and services of a country’s inhabitants. Water footprints depend on four fundamental factors: quantity consumed, type of consumption, climate and farming methods.

Here’s an example. A vegetarian diet requires the virtual consumption of 2,000 litres of water a day but if you eat meat, you can consume as much as 5,000 litres. According to the research paper, Water Footprints of Nations (2007), every Italian consumes 2,332 cubic metres, or 2.332 million litres, of water a year. Spain and Greece are on a par with us.

Only the United States, with 2,483 cubic metres, consumes more. The world average is 1,243 cubic metres but most of the poorer countries consume less than 1,000 cubic metres a year. Silvana Galassi, professor of ecology at Milan’s State University, observes: “Oil is transported in tankers. Water is embedded in cereals or other products but there can be no doubt that we are withdrawing resources from other territories”.

One paradox is importing fruit from Spain, a country that last year had to buy in water from France because its own resources were under strain. It costs 50 litres of water to grow an orange in Spain. Professor Galassi continues: “There is no more unexploited farmland left in developed countries so we use the land and water in other places. But the planet is a single system and should be considered as a whole. We are already beyond the limit of sustainability”.

Italy’s emergency
Summer 2003 was one of the hottest in the past two centuries. In a few short weeks, Italy discovered that drought can threaten even one of the world’s richest river basins, the Po valley. Professor Galassi again: “We were facing conflicts of use, like choosing between power stations or farming, something we thought only happened in water-impoverished countries.

In the future, climate change will tend to exacerbate these events. Unfortunately, we only act when there is an emergency. We never attempt to prevent or manage possible crises”. Northern Italy has plenty of excellent-quality water, which was heavily polluted in the past and is still today often used in a cavalier fashion.

Italy’s south and islands, however, have scant resources which will contract in the next few years, as well as very high leakage rates in the supply system. All this is going on in a context that Michele Candotti describes like this: “Water’s market price in no way reflects its value and subsidies hinder the move towards new technologies. This is the key. If a commodity’s price fails to reflect its significance or scarcity, no one bothers about excessive consumption or if any is being wasted”.

Pollution

There is another aspect that gets neglected, even though it is there for all to see. In most cases, Italy’s water can be drunk without any treatment but in the past, we have used the land poorly and polluted the water table. This means that today we have to face enormous costs to purify it. Environmentalists believe that the lesson has not yet been learned.

According to the WWF: “People quite rightly talk about carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect but we should treat the water issue with the same sense of urgency”. The figures reported by the latest research help us to reflect on our water consumption.

A tomato “costs” 13 litres, a sheet of A4 paper is ten litres, a slice of bread costs 40 and a pair of leather shoes may cost as much as 8,000 litres. How much pollution does the manufacture of these goods generate? Quantifying pollution is the next frontier for scientists who already point out that importing water embedded in products means consuming in Europe and leaving the environmental impact in the country of origin.

Lack of legislation
The WWF lists a series of actions necessary to reduce our footprint on the planet. Number one: focus on the productivity of water used for farming. Michele Candotti says: “I don’t want to point the finger at farmers but we know that improving field irrigation and water collection technology is crucial to limiting the use – and waste – of water”.

Nutritional education can have an equally significant impact, for example by reducing the consumption of meat. And in addition to the misdemeanours of producers and consumers, Italy is also penalised by its snail-like legal system.

The European Community directive on water dates from 2000. Italy has approved the initiative but has yet to implement it. As a result, the country has no legislation to regulate the demand, supply and management of water. The WWF sums up: “If we ask consumers to make sacrifices, we should also be demanding a charter that safeguards water as a social good”. 

 
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