Before you say, “What’s the big deal?” consider this:
Most Americans, including me, actually consume around four HUNDRED liters of water a day. We don’t think twice when we leave the tap running when we brush our teeth, or take a 20 minute shower, or flush the toilet six or seven times a day. Need to do the laundry? Just throw in a load. Want to water your flowers? Turn on the hose. And never mind the leaky faucet. Save water? What’s that?
Why do we use water in such a willy-nilly way?
Because we can. It’s a simple as that. At least for those of us living in developed countries (U.S., Canada, Europe, I’m talking to you), we have unlimited access to clean water, and at a pretty cheap price. Even in parts of the U.S. where water is scarce, like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Phoenix, water still flows out of the tap. And it’s clean and safe to drink.
Globally, that’s far from the case. Almost a billion people worldwide live on the little bit of water that would fill four large soda bottles, nothing more. That means they go for days without bathing. They wash their clothes in rivers or streams because they can’t “spend” water doing laundry. Flush a toilet? What toilet?
I’ve always been an advocate for using water wisely. After all, it’s a natural resource that we can’t afford to waste or pollute. But the notion that water is truly scarce for hundreds of millions of people was brought home to me this week when I attended the Further with Ford Trends Conference, sponsored by the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford Trends is an annual event the company organizes to shed light on issues that address the intersection between transportation and the automobile industry and consumers, the environment, and design.
Now, truth be told, I’m not one of these folks who lives for the newest, coolest car design. But I do worry about the impact that cars and trucks have on the planet. So when I come to this conference, and this is the third year I’ve come, it’s because I want to see what a company like Ford is saying and doing about sustainability.
Full disclosure, Ford pays my way. And that continually surprises me, since I generally encourage people NOT to buy or use a car. Burning gasoline generates carbon dioxide, a major cause of climate change, as well as a variety of the air pollutants that cause smog and give people respiratory disease. The folks at Ford know that I promote car sharing, biking, using mass transit, telecommuting, and whatever else people can do to drive less.
Still, they invite me to their Trends event! And I come – first and foremost to see what one of the world’s largest companies is doing to address the environmental impacts its industry creates. I also come because Ford has access to research and information I don’t have but that could make me a more knowledgeable and effective advocate for environmental protection.
This year, Ford held a session called Sustainability Blues to focus on water that totally fit the bill.
Why Save Water?
It seemed like a surprising choice, but it shouldn’t have. On average, it takes 4,000 liters of water to make just one car. And Ford cars are being made and sold all over the world. Lack of clean water threatens production in many places where the company has plants. If Ford and other businesses can’t get clean water, they won’t be able to make their products, simple as that.
There are many reasons why water is scarce. Climate change is creating more arid zones. Extreme weather events are wiping out water systems. Even without these conditions, the world’s water supply would be under siege. In the last century, the global population has tripled and water usage per individual has doubled. That’s an unsustainable equation no matter how you look at it. Women and children suffer most, particularly in developing countries, where moms and kids could spend as much as four hours a day trying to find water and then transport it back to their villages.
At the Sustainability Blues session, a panel of experts drove home the point over and over again.
Christoph Gorder, the founder of charity:water, calls water “one of life’s most basic needs.” He was a missionary kid who grew up in Africa with no running water or electricity. Today, his non-profit helps provide clean water by helping to dig wells in some of the most water-scarce regions of the world. “One in nine people don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water,” he said. “We can make a difference.”
Rob Frederick is the director of corporate responsibility for Brown-Forman, an alcohol beverage company whose brands include Jack Daniel’s, Finlandia, and Southern Comfort. If you love Kentucky bourbon or a smooth glass of whiskey, watch out! Both depend on clean water, which is increasingly hard to find in a state like Kentucky where mountain top removal related to coal mining is polluting streams and lakes with toxic run-off.
Tod Walton, Ford’s Manager for Environmental Quality, is based in Shanghai, where he said water quality is as big an issue as the overall lack of water. “My kids need to use bottled water to brush their teeth,” he noted, because the “drinking” water coming out of the tap isn’t actually safe to drink. He reported on Ford’s efforts to improve manufacturing processes in order to recycle 100% of the water used in some plants and overall, and reduce total global water consumption by 62 percent worldwide.
But what about that 4 liters of water a day I personally pledged to live on? I have George McGraw of Dig Deep to thank for that. Dig Deep is a non-profit organization that believes clean water is a human right and thus works to make it available in communities around the world – including the U.S. Believe it or not, tens of thousands of Americans have no access to safe water, which is why Dig Deep is particularly focused on helping relieve what they call “water poverty” on U.S. Indian reservations and elsewhere.
The group is also passionate about educating people like me about how important water really is. They started the 4 Liter Challenge both to raise awareness and to raise money. The idea is to get as many people as possible to take the challenge, and to have others support them by making tax-deductible donations to Dig Deep.
The challenge doesn’t actually begin until October, so I have plenty of time to prepare. I hope you’ll join me – the more we all know about water, the better!