Rick Hogeboom is the executive director of the Water Footprint Network, a non-profit partner organisation based in the Netherlands which aim to promote fair and smart use of fresh-water resources worldwide. As for all our interviews, we first let him watch people’s testimonies and then asked him a few related questions. The video shows a selection of his answers, and you can read his full interview below.
20 Questions About Water: What is your first reaction when you see these testimonies?
Rick Hogeboom: I'm not completely surprised, but there seems to be a melancholic, negative feeling towards it. We all acknowledge the importance of water, but also that something is really wrong with the way we use it, the way we waste it, the way we manage it, as many people indicated in the clip.
20QAW: What are the main sources of water consumption in the world?
RH: The largest water user by far is agriculture. If you look at water consumption or the water footprint of humanity, 92% is in agriculture, and the remaining 8% is roughly equally shared between industry and domestic use.
"Since the lion's share of our water footprint lies in agriculture, it makes sense to look at the biggest inefficiencies there, and there are many"
20QAW: What are the biggest sources of water waste in the world today?
RH: Since the lion's share of our water footprint lies in agriculture, it makes sense to also look at the biggest inefficiencies, and there are many. It takes much more water to produce one crop in a specific place, than it takes elsewhere. A farmer can be much more efficient with their water than another, so there are major inefficiencies in the way we grow crops, and that's also where the biggest savings can be made worldwide.
20QAW: Do you have concrete examples?
RH: It's difficult to generalise because it's complicated, as always. If you irrigate a crop with precious water from the river, which is limitedly available, while the plant has not really started then a lot of that water evaporates into the atmosphere and can therefore no longer be used by anything else.
There are irrigation techniques such as sprinkler or furrow irrigation that involve flooding the whole field or spraying water on it, and most of the water goes unused back into the atmosphere.
But there are alternatives that allow you, in a very precise way, to bring water to the plants, to the crops, at the right time, precisely when they need it: for instance via drip irrigation systems or subsurface drip irrigation. You can use these technologies for a variety of crops, so it has a lot to do with how you manage the farm, and less so with the specific crop you grow.
20QAW: Is there a link between water waste and the level of development of a country?
RH: There is certainly a link, for instance between GDP and water efficiency because, as I mentioned, irrigation techniques are very important. If you have the means to invest in these more efficient water techniques then you are automatically more efficient in your water use. However there isn’t a perfect correlation: there are regions with low GDP where you still have high water efficiencies in agriculture.
"As a consumer, you can demand that the producers and farmers that you buy your food and clothes from don’t waste water in their processes"
20QAW: What are some ways to stop wasting water?
RH: There are three very different categories. Starting at home where we as consumers use water for washing, cooking, cleaning, bathing. You can of course try to save water by installing the most efficient appliances in your home like a water-saving showerhead, or a water-efficient washing machine. You may also avoid throwing toxic material or medicines down the drain to avoid pollution. But in the grand scheme of things, on a global scale, these amounts don't add up that much because as I mentioned, the lion's share of this footprint is in agriculture. What farmers can do, first of all, is make sure they grow the right crops for the environment they are in, and in the most efficient way possible in terms of water use. So that comes down to the way they irrigate their crops, what kind of techniques, what kind of strategies they use to grow their crops. In the industry, it mostly has to do with water pollution, so it is essential to avoid waste, or recycling or cleaning the residue to prevent polluted water from flowing into the water systems after you use it in a factory. Ideally, you can install technologies that circulate the water within the factory premises so that the plant operates independently from the overall system.
20QAW: Who is in charge of sharing the good practices regarding water?
RH: There are various drivers for increased water efficiency in agriculture. There's not a single silver bullet that will solve these problems of overuse and wasteful use of water in agriculture, and that's also why we need a whole range of stakeholders to take up their role and responsibilities. On the one hand, you can demand, as a consumer, that the producers and farmers that you buy your food and clothes from, don’t waste water in their processes. Consumers can put pressure on their reputation to adhere to better practices. On the other hand, governments also have a big role to play because after all, it is a common-pool resource. We need regulations, and with increasing scarcity, you can be sure that governments and water authorities will be putting restrictions on the water permits they issue, and that they will only issue them on the condition that farmers and producers are not wasting water and putting it to good use. You can anticipate more regulatory pressure on water users as well. Finally, the companies that famers supply may also pressure them to comply with certain water stewardship standards in order to maintain their partnership.
"Telling people and companies what their water footprint is makes them more aware of how dependent they are on water"
20QAW: How far is awareness raised on water scarcity?
RH: Unfortunately I think much more can be done in terms of awareness-raising, and that's also where we try to fill a role at Water Footprint Network: telling people and companies what their water footprint is makes them more aware of how dependent they are on water, to be able to consume goods, food and clothes. Much more can be done in this regard, and I also think that awareness campaigns usually revolve around water use for households, meaning water that is used domestically for washing, cooking and cleaning. I'm thinking about Day Zero in Cape Town, when they realised there wasn’t enough water for the city’s inhabitants. However the issue is much wider than that, because as I mentioned, the domestic water consumption is only a very small part of the entirety of water that we consume as humans, and the scarcity that arises in agricultural areas is something so remote that it is difficult to grasp. I sometimes say it is misery in slow-motion, because while with floods and earthquakes we immediately see something terrible happening and we all act on it, water scarcity happens very slowly. That’s also why it is very difficult to catch the attention of the general public and policymakers. I'm afraid water is just not very sexy.
I believe that's the power of the water footprint concept, because that somehow resonates with people: a footprint, an impression that you have, how much water is actually going into the product, how much water is actually needed for my lifestyle, and that is something that resonates better than the jargon that was used in the different silos of agronomy, hydrology, policymaking… So hopefully with the terminology of water footprints, we can better overcome these obstacles.
"We will not run out of water but we will not have enough water available to meet our demand"
20QAW: Can we know exactly how much water is needed to create a specific item?
RH: We have this kind of information, we know exactly where the water is used, for what products that support our lifestyles. But there’s no transparency, if you go to a supermarket, how do you know how much water went into that product, and whether or not that water was used sustainably or if a lot of water was wasted or polluted in the process, you don't know. There's no transparency in the whole value chain of our products, and I think there's a role to play for both producers to become more transparent about it, and regulators to help producers in becoming more transparent, so that we, as modern consumers in a globalised connected world, can make informed choices.
20QAW: Are we going to run out of water?
RH: We are not going to run out of water because the hydrologic cycle is a loop, we will always have fresh water to our avail, but it does not mean that there is enough water sustainably available to meet our ever-growing demand, and our demand is already much larger than our water availability in many places during many periods. With climate change, growing populations, populations becoming ever richer and the dietary change it implies, as richer people generally eat more animal products in their diets, which are more water intensive: these are all drivers that will skyrocket our water demand, but the water availability will more or less stay stable. We will not run out of water but we will not have enough water available to meet our demand.
20QAW: What would you like to tell the people of the video?
RH: They expressed very diverse opinions. Some people worried about the waste. It is easy to say what's your own waste but how do you know exactly that a product is water-sufficient when - as we discussed - there is a clear lack of transparency. In your own sphere of influence, you can become a little more aware about your own water footprint: in which case do I use water, in which case do I pollute water, and what are the water-intensive products that I can maybe replace in my lifestyle, because that's really where the difference is made, when you do your grocery shopping, when you buy your clothes, when you buy the products you use. Not so much at home but in the things that you buy, that's where you can make a difference.