Watermark (Pt. 4)

Virtual water is what lies invisible behind the creation of a project. Add to that the externalities, the even more remote water uses that are essential nonetheless to the successful manufacture of a product. The real cost of all that water is typically under-valued by the under valuation of water in general and by the resultant negligible price factored into the accounting of what is purchased as raw material, transformed, and sold.

In previous posts we have discussed the work of the Water Footprint Network and its formulas for assessing water requirements for particular use in a particular place or time -- various assessments that adapt to the real evaluation of supply and demand in real world situations. The Network offers its own personal water footprint calculator. I recently measured my own use and was able to compare it to use by others in different places and conditions. I urge you to try it.

But the Water Footprint Network has also conducted studies of specific manufacturing operations in an attempt by some corporations to understand the true environmental impact of production. Volkswagen provides an astonishing case study wherein it began to analyze the freshwater consumption of three specific models -- Polo, Golf and Passat -- along their product life cycles on both inventory and impact assessment levels.

Here, quoted from the Water Footprint Network website, is a description of the scope of the inquiry:

"In order to obtain a regionalized water inventory, which is a prerequisite for a meaningful impact assessment, the total water consumption is allocated to different car material groups as a first step. The water consumption in these groups is then assigned top-down to the corresponding countries on the basis of import mixes, location of suppliers, production sites, etc. Based on this, country- and watershed-specific characterization factors are calculated and selected impact assessment methods for water consumption are applied to estimate the environmental consequences. In this water footprint study only freshwater consumption was considered. It is complemented by additional impact categories like eutrophication, acidification, human- and eco-toxicity.

At the inventory level, the water consumption along the life cycles of the three cars was: for all three cars, more than 90% of the water was consumed in the production phase. Water consumption takes place in 43 countries, with less than 10% of the total consumed directly at the production site in Wolfsburg, Germany, mainly from painting and evaporation of cooling water. More than 70% of the total relates to steel and iron materials and polymers and 20 per cent to special metals (gold, silver, and platinum group metals.) The study shows that impact assessment results can lead to different conclusions from purely volumetric water footprints. However, water use and consumption figures are not complete in current databases and regionalization of inventory data, which is a necessary and inevitable step... We therefore recommend improving the quality of water data and establishing spatially differentiated water flows..."

I could not find the actual number of gallons of freshwater required to produce the Passat you may drive, or the additional water that it takes to maintain your car with parts and service, to operate it over so many thousands of miles, or even to discard or recycle it at the end of a lifetime of use.

But let's think of it this way:

Every vehicle consumes 90% of its water use in its production. Parts manufacture and assembly takes place in over 40 countries, in each case dependent on the water supply available then and there and thereafter wasted or unavailable for alternative use such as hygiene or agriculture. In your mind, if you begin with the idea of a few gallons of water to support the production of one small part and then incorporate that part, and that water, into the total flow of a single assembly, and then add that assembly to other assemblies similarly water-dependent, and then integrate all those pieces into transportation, chassis, engine, systems, tires, lubricants and fuels into a fully aggregated volume of water flow, what began as an insignificant amount has now grown into a tsunami of water required to put just one Passat on the road. Now multiply by models and years and brands and numbers of cars owned and you might drown in the sea of water captured by just one aspect of our global system manufacture and consumption.

Now consider this: if that climate and irresponsible water use and management further delimits the amount available for all uses just in the critical climate and under-supply we know today, what will the inevitable change in water valuation and consequent increase in price mean for the cost of a Volkswagen or anything else on earth? It will be simply unaffordable. Just as for years we have been living the delusion of endless fossil fuel, we are now living in an even more devastating delusion of endless water. What has been seemingly a dream is becoming a nightmare, and we have no alternative but to wake up, face reality, and change assumptions and behavior along the full systemic extent of the water cycle.

Learn more about the Global Footprint Network and World Ocean Radio by visiting WorldOceanObservatory.org