Water security


What’s the challenge?

Water is a precious resource. Climate change and an increasing population with changing lifestyles has put increasing pressure on global resources. The scale of our global water consumption is having a dramatic impact around the world. There is a hidden cost of what we eat, drink and consume, from coffee to t-shirts, food to computers. We consume far more water to support our lifestyles than most of us imagine. Is it time we start thinking about our water footprint?


  • The Earth’s atmosphere contains approximately 13 000 km3 of water.
  • In 2030, 47% of world population will be living in areas of high water stress.
  • In low- and middle-income countries, 38% of health care facilities lack any water source, 19% do not have improved sanitation and 35% lack water and soap for handwashing.

Case study: Read about the Aral Sea

Water footprints


Personal water footprint

The irrigation, processing and packaging of the produce we consume include water intensive goods such as meat, soya, oil seed, cotton, rice, coffee and cocca. These imports are sourced from Brazil, France, Ireland, Ghana and India among others.There are 2 types of virtual/embedded water:

Blue water – the surface water in our rivers, lakes and in the ground (aquifers)

Green water – water hidden in soils, and is often not recognised and valued. Green water is estimated to enable 85% of the world’s crops to grow.

It’s estimated that the average Briton drinks between 2-5 litres of water per day and will use about 145 litres for cooking, cleaning, washing and flushing. However this doesn’t take into consideration the water used in the processing and manufacturing of everyday products. These products are often produced in countries already at risk from drought or water stress.

In our global economy, each consumer on average requires as much as 5 000 litres of water every day (ranging from 1 500 to 10 000 litres per day, depending where you live and what you eat).

Source: World Water Development Report 2012, World Water Assessment Programme, WHO

Here are some examples of the water needed to produce everyday products:

  • 109 litres of water per 125ml glass of wine
  • 1608 litres of water per 1kg of bread (wheat)
  • 2495 litres of water for a shirt of 250 gram
  • 2497 litres of water per 1kg of rice
  • 4325 litres of water per 1kg of chicken meat
  • 15415 litres of water per 1kg of beef
  • 17093 litre/kg of water per 1kg of leather used to make a handbag
  • 17196 litres of water per 1kg of chocolate     Source: Waterfootprint.org, 2015, Waterwise

Read more about water footprints and the hidden cost of what we consume


“The UK is the sixth largest net importer of water in the world.” WWF, 2008

Source: World Water Development Report 2012, World Water Assessment Programme, WHO

Panel discussion

The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) held a panel discussion on 14 October 2009 to discuss the issue.

George Alagiah (Chair) is the presenter of the BBC Six O’Clock News. He first started on the programme in January 2003. George also presents World News Today on BBC World News, the BBC’s international news channel.

In a new BBC series, ‘The Future of Food’, George investigates the growing global food crisis that could affect the planet in the years ahead, discovering what is wrong with people’s diets, and uncovers that the UK imports an average of 3000 litres of ‘virtual water’ per capita every day.

Before going behind the studio desk, George Alagiah was one of the BBC’s leading foreign correspondents, recognised throughout the industry for his reporting on some of the most significant events of the last decade.

Highlights of his reporting and presenting from abroad include live news programmes from the South Africa/Zimbabwe border, from Sri Lanka following the Asian tsunami, from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and from Pakistan following the south Asian earthquake.



Andy Wales, Head of Sustainability, SABMiller
SABMiller, one of the world’s largest brewers, has brewing interests and distribution agreements across six continents. The company’s portfolio of brands includes international beers such as Pilsner, Peroni Nastro Azzurro, Miller Genuine Draft and Grolsch.

The company are currently working to be more efficient in their water use and engaging with suppliers. This will help them to not only cut costs, reduce risks but be of benefit local communities. In November 2008, SABMiller announced a commitment to reduce water consumption across their global business. The target is to cut the amount of water used by 25% by 2015. The strategy is built round the ‘5R’ model of water responsibility: pRotect, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Redistribute. SABMiller and WWF jointly publish a report analysing water use in the beer value chain.


Robin Farrington, WWF
Robin primarily focuses on engaging the private sector on global water issues.

His work aims to mobilise companies to reduce the impacts of their water footprints on water stressed ecosystems around the world, and to build a compelling business case for the private sector, governments and other stakeholders to tackle shared water-related risks.

“Less than 0.5% of the water on the planet is actually available for our use” Robin Farrington, WWF UK

“We [the UK] are inadvertently contributing to social and economic and environmental problems in many of the poorer areas of the world” Robin Farrington, WWF UK


Dr Chad Staddon is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Environmental Management at the University of the West of England. Chad is also the founder and director of the Bristol Group for Water Research.

Managing increasingly scarce water resources is one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century. Now more than ever it is vitally important that applied research on technical water issues needs to link up with “blue skies thinking” so that new solutions can be found. The BGWR is centrally interested in making those linkages – between water sector practitioners and theorists, between the growing water NGO community and academics, between local communities at risk of flood and/or drought and interdisciplinary specialists.

The BGWR is perfectly placed to address these issues and is currently working the following sorts of research initiatives:

-water demand management: towards sustainable policy
-inshore and offshore fishing rights
-implementation of the Water Framework Directive
-flood modelling, planning and mitigation.

“Virtual water is the many hundreds or thousands of litres of water we use indirectly each day. Whether this is in the things that we wear, or the foods we eat, the cars we drive and the lifestyles that we live.” Dr Chad Staddon

“If you pick up a food packet in the supermarket there is already nutrition information, production information, company information and marketing. So I wonder where there would be room for a clear identifiable and easily understood message about embedded water.” Dr Chad Staddon


Tim Lang has been Professor of Food Policy at City University since November 2002. He was Director of the Centre for Food Policy at Thames Valley University from 1994 to 2002, before it moved to City University. He was Director of Parents for Safe Food, 1990-1994 and before that Director of the London Food Commission, 1984 to 1990.

In 2006, he was appointed Natural Resources and Land Use Commissioner on the UK Government’s Sustainable Development Commission. He is a regular advisor / consultant to the World Health Organisation at global and European levels. He has been a special advisor to four House of Commons Select Committee inquiries (food standards [twice], globalisation and obesity). In 2006-07, he was an advisor to the Foresight Obesity programme, and since 2005 has been a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House)

‘Food Supply in the 21st Century’ Working Party and team. He has been a consultant on many occasions for the World Health Organisation, also for the European Commission and Food & Agriculture Organisation. In 2005-06, he chaired the Scottish NHS Executive’s Scottish Diet Action Plan Review. He is a Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health. In 1999-2005 he was Chair of Sustain, the NGO alliance, of which he was a founder member. He has been a Trustee of Friends of the Earth and was Secretary of the Public Health Alliance, predecessor to the UK Public Health Association.

Tim was winner of Observer Food Monthly’s lifetime achievement award in 2007, and well known as the man who coined the phrase ‘food miles’.

“Many of us in my world think water is going to be the crunch issue”
Professor Tim Lang


Further reading

Managing water resources in the UK, Geography Directions

The water challenge, Professor Dame Judith Rees, for ‘Ask the experts’, http://www.rgs.org