Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

Vampiric overconsumption

WATER / Do we know the figures behind today's water consumption? For example, cotton from the fashion industry accounts for 10 per cent of global CO2 emissions – more than aviation and shipping combined. It costs 2700 liters of water to produce a cotton T-shirt. 140 liters of water to produce a cup of coffee. And one kilogram of beef requires a whopping 14 liters of water. Must we always let capitalism trump the future?


Exactly eight years ago I asked NY TIME the following: Is the water drowning in climate issues? (March 2015). In March 2023, the UN – in collaboration with the Netherlands and Tajikistan – held its first conference on the water issue in several decades. It gathered around 10 participants and resulted in over 000 resolutions, but none of them binding.

During the closing ceremony stated UN generalsekretær Antony Guterres that "together, your ambitious vision and dedication to action and transformation propel us towards a sustainable, just and inclusive water-secure future for both people and the planet". The idea is good, like the rest of the speech, but also breezy and with a cautious tone so as not to point out the players and companies that contribute to increased and often polluting water consumption and the associated water shortage.

In an earlier speech, he was more direct, stating: "We are draining the lifeblood of humanity through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating the water through global warming." Vampiric overuse is very apt. Had he added 'Western' before 'vampiric overconsumption', it would have been even more apt.

The water footprint

Virtual water is an expression and method professor Tony Allen launched at the end of the last millennium and fortified with his book Virtual Water: tackling the Treats to Our Planet’s Most Precious Resource# (2011). In short, virtual water is the water footprint of a product or service. That is, how much water goes with it from the first seed into a fruit or vegetable; how much water from the calf is born, until the steak is on the dinner table; how much water is used to produce gasoline (about 2,5 times more than gasoline); how much water goes into the production of a car (52-000 litres); or one smartphone (approx. 12 litres). In fact, it takes twice as much water to produce one plastic water bottle as what it contains…

Our little planet is covered in water – a whopping 71 percent. Of all the water on earth, only approx. 2,5 percent fresh water, and only 0,3 percent is available to us humans. The rest is in glaciers, in Greenland and around the poles, or deep in the earth in porous sediments and bedrock. Almost 70 percent of water consumption goes to agriculture, 23 percent is used in industry — mostly in power production — and the rest goes to household consumption. Although Norwegians are generally blessed with enough and good, clean water, 2/3 of our water consumption is taken from abroad – according to So Virtual Water, in everything from the Tesla and the T-shirt to the coffee or the avocado. Almost everything that is imported has a water footprint.

Norwegians are world champions in coffee drinking. It costs approx. 140 liters of water to produce one cup. A cotton T-shirt costs approx. 2700 litres. One kilogram of beef around 14 litres. We are unlikely to stop drinking coffee, but perhaps a generally more conscious attitude will make us more careful in our water consumption? A change in consumption can also reduce our water consumption, whether it concerns food or consumer goods.

Electric cars and the fashion industry

In the debate about electrical bilis an important perspective has been almost totally absent, namely the total footprint, whether it concerns energy, CO2 or water. Where did the incentives go for simply swapping out the engine of an otherwise serviceable car to make it electric? It can be done, and is often done with buses and special cars such as e.g. rare vintage cars but are still expensive. Gueterres' 'vampiric overspending' is like powerful brake lights here, but few politicians care. And the overconsumption takes place in Norway and the West, even though much of the goods come from – and the water consumption takes place in – poorer countries, including in Asia and Africa.

Cotton has a high footprint on most things – pesticides, water consumption and CO2emissions.

The fashion industry is among the worst, also when it comes to pesticides, water consumption and CO2- emissions. It accounts for as much as 10 percent of global CO2- the emission, more than flights and shipping combined. Why isn't more use of other natural fibers with a much lower footprint encouraged? Hamp og bamboo still have little of the market, while they are competitive with regard to water consumption, pesticides and CO2- emissions. Perhaps most of all for the rich part of the world: Why isn't there an incentive for less consumption and higher quality and longer duration of products? Must we always let capitalism trump the future? We maintain a system that in itself lacks future perspectives (or deliberately withholds studies on future perspectives, as with the oil and plastics industry) with short-sighted economic gain.

The philanthropic capitalists

So is everything completely black? Are you to believe FN and their forecasts for Sustainable Development Goal number 6 on ensuring access to water and sanitation, it looks bleak, even after this recent conference. The effort must be quadrupled, they say now as in many years before. Even after a few years of the pandemic, we do not seem to take any significant notice of the fact that approximately 2 billion people, i.e. 1/4 of the world's population, lack access to clean, piped water. 700 lofty goals without any real commitments are and will be lofty goals. In 1980, the goal of the United Nations was to eradicate hunger by the year 2000. In 1974, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger already in support of the World Food Council's goal of eradicating poverty within ten years – by saying that by 1980 "not a single child will go to bed hungry". The opposite happened. The connection between lack of access to clean, piped water and poverty should be obvious. Water is the main key to poverty alleviation and improved health.

1/4 of the world's population lacks access to clean, piped water.

Philanthropy means love of humanity, an altruistic desire to improve conditions for people. While the fashionable philanthropist capitalists get media coverage for every crumb they give (but rarely for what they earn from each crumb), billions still live without clean water and in poverty. While the figures for covid deaths were inflated with war headlines, the figures for died of hunger — and lack of water — scant attention, even though the numbers increased by nearly 50 percent during the pandemic, from about 7 million per year to over 11 million dead for 2021 and 2022 (Worldometer). Our kind philanthropist capitalists got column meters of space for their efforts against covid – while more people than ever in this millennium died from unclean water, thirst and hunger.


Groundwater in the world is decreasing. Groundwater is essentially a non-renewable resource, since the rate, the time it takes to 'renew' it, is a lifetime or more. It is estimated that only 6 percent of the groundwater will be replenished naturally within 50 years. This means that sinking groundwater as we now see it almost all over the world is, to say the least, worrisome. And greatly overlooked. Out of sight, out of mind. Or as the statesman and thinker Benjamin Franklin (1705–1790) so aptly said over two hundred years ago: "When the well runs dry, we will understand the value of water." Groundwater is a scarce resource in a world with a growing population and corresponding consumption.

Only 6 percent of the groundwater is replenished naturally within 50 years.

It is estimated that half of everything drinking water and a quarter of all water used for irrigation (agriculture) from groundwater. Groundwater sinks when it is pumped up too much, which is seen especially in areas where artificial irrigation has turned otherwise barren areas into lush agricultural landscapes, such as in the Central Valley in California, the northern Chinese
plains area and north-west India. But it is not only in such previously dry areas that the groundwater is sinking – it is alarming that the groundwater is also sinking in Europe. Large parts of the world, approx. 35 percent are dry areas where groundwater alone is a safe and stable water source.

It is alarming that the ground water is also falling in Europe.

A third, 33 percent, of the world's agricultural land is used to grow animal feed. Meat, and especially beef, is one of the most thirsty things we eat. In 1989, each Norwegian ate an average of 46 kilos meat. In 2021, it had increased to 72,6 kilograms. Meat production also accounts for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gasemissions. António Guterres also pointed out during this year's water conference that "developing new, alternative food systems to reduce the unsustainable use of water in food production" must be part of the plan to achieve sustainability goal number 6 on clean water and good sanitation for all. Reduction of meat consumption was not mentioned this time.

Droughts, floods and other extreme climate changes are exacerbating water scarcity and water quality globally. Fortunately, it seems that especially flood has a positive effect on the groundwater level, but unfortunately not enough. Close to two billion people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar depend on water from the Himalayan glaciers. Increasing global warming means that Glacierone melts, and can have fatal consequences. Even surface water and water flow in to see has been reduced, and next to directly water shortage it also changes and destroys natural diversity.

There are three expressions that may be worth knowing. Blue water, green water and gray water. Simply explained is blue water groundwater and clean, free-flowing water such as in rivers and lakes, while green water is bound as moisture in plants and soil. Gray water is polluted, waste water. Greywater can be cleaned and recycled if it is not seriously contaminated. And precisely that should be kept an eye on. Some types of contamination make cleaning both extremely difficult and expensive. The previously mentioned Tony Allen's book discusses this in a separate chapter.

Desalination and air-to-water machines

Yes, there are solutions to conjure up more fresh water. Desalination is best known and most used, but it also has major consequences as it creates a saltwater brine that must be deposited somewhere. Where it is pumped into the sea, it disturbs and/or kills marine life, due to the high salt concentration. Enormous amounts of energy are also required to desalinate seawater. I have previously written about Food from thin air (almost) (Ny Tid, spring 2023). Water can also be produced from thin air, but here too it is 'almost' as even these devices have a water footprint. In some mountain areas, nets have been set up for a few decades to capture the moisture in dew, fog and mist. This of course helps somewhat locally and has a very low water footprint, but to an otherwise rather limited extent, however worth noting as we need to think both locally and globally and not forget alternatives even if they may seem small now. Tunisian Cumulus Water is a manufacturer that makes air-to-water machines, but for now only for France, Spain and Tunisia. The machine, which weighs around 60 kilos, is powered by solar power, can produce 20-30 liters a day and costs 4000-5000 euros. The manufacturers themselves claim that the technique they have developed will produce 25 liters of water daily for less than 8 cents (euro). In coastal areas with higher humidity, production can be increased. Also researchers at ETH Zurich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Switzerland) is working on something similar, albeit a larger installation in terms of format, which does not require energy during the process. Zero Mass Water (today SOURCE Global, PBC) has lasted somewhat longer and produces water from solar-powered 'hydropanels'. Among other things, they have installed 20 panels on the roof of the University Hospital of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, which produce 3000 liters of clean water every day, more than their daily needs.

There is water on the moon, but encapsulated in glass beads, so until we colonize the moon, this is unlikely to be water we will ever see. There are also large water reservoirs deep under the earth's crust. The problem, besides being incredibly deep, is that these reservoirs are often either very saline or contain high concentrations of toxins.

Our consumption

Fortunately, we are not completely out of control in all areas. Certain parts of the industry have taken action and reduced their water consumption considerably. It is still not enough for a growing population. However, it is neither the increase in population in itself that is problematic nor the personal consumption of individuals, but our general overconsumption and consumer mentality. It is high time for a more holistic way of thinking. Our consumption is largely a pressure from economic, capitalist interests that have short-term profit as one of their goals, whatever the cost to the future. Since virtually everything has a water footprint, is recycling, reuse and changed consumption patterns are important to keep in mind along with preventing pollution. And not least, the politicians must open their eyes to the water problem and the global effect this has, and think more about the future.


AI and ChatGPT

The latest on the water consumption front is AI and Chat GPT (GPT stands for Generative
Pre-trained Transformer). As previously mentioned, almost everything we do and consume has
a watermark. Alongside other concerns with ChatGPT and its use have
it also a high water consumption. A recent study (Making AI Less 'Thirsty': Uncovering and
Addressing the Secret Water Footprint of AI Models, 6.4.23) paints a bleak picture:
For every 20-50 question does GPT need a pint of water. It may not be heard
looks like a lot until you think about the millions if not billions that will be spent
ChatGPT regularly. Then comes the 'training time' and consumption. The example drawn
forward, is GPT-3, developed at OpenAI and Microsoft in the USA – which needed 700 litres
clean water, enough to produce 370 BMWs or 320 Teslas. Had this been
developed in Asia, where water efficiency is far lower, the water footprint would be
significantly higher, perhaps as high as 4,9 million litres, according to the study. The study is
help to "highlight the necessity of holistic treatment of water footprints
together with carbon footprints to enable truly sustainable AI”.

(Kissinger and the UN's 10-year goals)
from Ny Tid 2015 ("Is the water drowning in the climate issues?")
(study about ChatGPT water consume)
Groundwater is running low in some of the world’s main agricultural areas. UNESCO, CC

Andrew Seifert
Andreas Seifert
Permanent writer in MODERN TIMES within technology/environment.

Related articles