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A wake-up call on water use

A long-running resource issue finally trickles down to more consumers.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2009

An aqueduct carries water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to southern California.

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Santa Monica, Calif.

Move over, carbon, the next shoe to drop in the popular awareness of eco-issues is the “water footprint.”

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That’s the word in environmental circles these days. Just as the image of a heavy carbon foot made it possible for the masses to grasp the power of carbon-dioxide emissions, water footprint is the phrase now drawing attention to the impact of human behavior regarding water.

“H2O is the next CO2,” says Nicholas Eisenberger, managing principal of GreenOrder, a consulting firm that specializes in sustainable business. As a phrase, water footprint “will probably move more quickly through the public mind as it catches on,” he says, because water is more tangible than carbon.

Measuring how much water an individual, business, or government uses is a concept everyone can viscerally relate to, he adds, “because they put their hands on it every day, which is not the case, necessarily, with carbon.”

Why is “water footprint” coming to the fore now? And why does what is arguably humanity’s most vital resource need what some call a gimmick to connect people with its importance?

“You can’t control what you don’t measure,” says Laura Shenkar, principal of the Artemis Project, a water consulting firm. People take water for granted, she says, but the growing talk about climate change inevitably includes water. And recent droughts in the usually verdant southeastern United States have helped bring the issue to public attention.

But causing people to take action on this issue isn’t necessarily going to be easy. One simple “wake-up” tool is the calculator at the website of the Water Footprint Network. It asks questions about your diet and lifestyle and then churns out eye-popping “prints,” or water consumption estimates in the hundreds of gallons.

These figures include both direct use and indirect, or what’s known as “virtual water,” meaning how much H2O your Big Mac or Toyota Prius required all the way through the production chain – including growing the alfalfa that fed the cow that made the beef patty.

But calculators that return such large numbers that they convince people they’d never be able to live a comfortable lifestyle, “aren’t really helpful,’ says activist Alexandra Cousteau, who adds that she prefers to pursue projects that will “inspire and empower people.”

On June 8, the granddaughter of undersea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau will complete a 100-day global journey to expand awareness of the “interconnectedness of our hydrosphere.”

She and her team are chronicling critical water sites on five continents. “Expedition: Blue Planet” delves into crises such as the dwindling River Ganges in India and solutions such as a state-of-the-art Coca-Cola bottling plant in the Palestinian city of Ramallah (It’s the only multinational corporation in the West Bank.)

According to Greg Koch, director of the company’s Global Water Stewardship program, Coca-Cola (whose water brand, Dasani, is a sponsor of Ms. Costeau’s tour) eventually hopes to achieve “water neutrality” at its plants worldwide. (Water neutrality compares the amount of groundwater used with how much is returned to the earth through conservation measures.)