It’s common knowledge that reducing our carbon footprint is important, but what about our water footprint?
Showering, cooking, doing dishes and flushing toilets adds up fast, and Canadians use around 250 litres each day — that’s 500 standard water bottles worth of water. Much of our water comes from the Great Lakes, which contain about 20 per cent of the world’s supply of fresh water found above ground, so why bother being stingy?
“We need to ask more questions about our water, where that water comes from and how it gets to us,” says Mandy Meriano associate professor, teaching stream in the department of physical and environmental sciences at U of T Scarborough. “Sometimes I think we're a bit too comfortable in our own comfort.”
Meriano says one important reason to conserve is what’s below ground: the vast filtration systems that get water to your tap and inevitably wear down with use. Wasting water simultaneously wastes the energy and resources it takes to make it drinkable and get it to your taps. It’s a labour-intensive process relying on infrastructure that will eventually need replacing, and may include fossil fuel use for transportation. Just like tossing food in the trash, wasting water adds to the demand we place on the environment.
There’s a reason “reduce” is the first of the three Rs — just like recycling cans and bottles, water doesn’t necessarily end up being entirely reused. Meriano conducted a study in Pickering, Ont., that found when treated water was sent into distribution systems, up to 14 per cent was leaking out of water mains and into the ground, losing more water and contributing to local flood risks and formation of sink holes.
“We all have an individual responsibility, but I think at a greater level too, the government has to start paying attention,” she says. “We need to be engaged with how people that we put in government are actually managing, or mismanaging, our resources.”
Steps to reduce your water footprint
Meriano says those looking to reduce their water footprint should start at home and be open to change. She’s picked up some water-saving habits from her students, including one from Australia who learned to take extremely quick showers due to routine water shortages. Another student left their sink plugged and reused water from washing vegetables to water their plants. She’s also had reminders of water privilege from students who were terrified of drinking from taps after coming from countries where water is often contaminated.
“Once you learn something, pass it on. If you tell another person and you motivate them to make a change and be positive and upbeat about it, it's important,” she says. “I deeply believe in that snowball effect. You can gain that momentum.”
She adds one of the first steps is to simply take your water consumption habits seriously. Fix leakages or dripping immediately from toilets, hot water heaters or other pipes and make sure to turn taps off all the way. Showers use less water than baths but if you need to take a soak, don’t fill the tub all the way. And when opportunity arises, choose a new washing machine, toilet, showerhead or dishwasher that uses less water.
Outside the home, rainwater that flows down gutters can be collected and used to water plants and gardens. Water lawns when it’s not hot so water doesn’t evaporate, and don’t water them on windy days. Keeping blades of grass longer can also shelter the roots and cause lawns to need less water.
Those looking to take it a step further can look at donating to charities dedicated to conservation, and remember “you can also give yourself.” Volunteering can include offering an organization your time, knowledge or skillset. Meriano herself used her background as an educator, and funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to put together a master’s program training graduates in water resources management at universities in sub-Saharan Africa.
“All health is reliant and dependent on clean water. You can't have healthy populations without having access to clean water,” she says.