Water We Thinking?

We tend to treat our water consumption as if it were inconsequential; like we’re harmlessly accessing an infinite resource like a river or stream instead of from faucets, pipes, irrigation and treatment centers. I believe we inherited this mentality from our humbler, early ancestors, who could justifiably treat their consumption this way because their lack of knowledge, technology, and population meant their choices couldn’t outpace nature’s ability to replenish itself.

But this dynamic, whether we acknowledge it or not, changed long ago from one of dependence to one of interdependence. Yes, we’re still dependent on nature for survival, but nature’s survival is now also dependent on how we interact with it.

For example, the United Nations projects [1] that by 2030, demand for freshwater consumption will increase by 50 percent from where we are now. But when we see the incredible depletion of groundwater worldwide, as reported in USA Today’s 2018 documentary PUMPED DRY [2], the policing [3] of South Africa’s water restrictions [4] due to their historic drought, the contamination of rivers from the Hudson in New York [5] to the Ganges in India [6], the plastic filling up our oceans [7], and many other man-made issues, one has to wonder how much water in general will viable for anything by that time.

I think the reason we continue to act like our ancestors, despite what we know, is because our personal and professional innovations and bottom lines have largely disconnected us from paying attention to how much water we consume. Water, this thing we’ve just always had, has by and large been an infinite means for a wide variety of tasks, and we’ve sought to maintain and embrace this utility as we’ve both moved away from it and exponentially ramped up our manufacturing processes.  Such a lack of connection is dangerously negligent considering what we now know about the consequences of water’s unrestricted use, waste, and pollution.

If the water we consumed and affected each day had to be carried on our heads in a bucket three miles back and forth through a desert from an increasingly dwindling reservoir, you can bet that we’d be more considerate in how we use it than we are now. But we don’t have to do that. We don’t even have to see where our water comes from, so it only makes sense that it’s hard to relate to the consequences of our actions. That when someone tries to give a sense of scale in terms like liters, gallons, or even swimming pools, that our eyes glaze over.

If we want to resensitize ourselves to the reality of our water consumption, we need to do two things. The first is redefine how we visualize our water use. The second is recognizing the impacts of indirect consumption before, after, and alongside our direct processes.

On the basis of visualization, we can start by considering a new unit of measurement, at least mentally, in a way that, similar to “feet”, helps us recognize how many times an amount of something can be divided into a common, sensory experience. It may sound comical, by my suggestion is redefining our water consumption in terms of eight-ounce “glasses”.

It might sound weird or unnecessary, but there are a lot of common, sensory experiences surrounding having a glass of water. The passage of time standing at a faucet. The monitoring of the glass so it fills to exactly the right place; higher than too low, but not enough to cause spilling or siping off the rim. The glass encircling our peripheral vision. The sounds and feeling of the water as we drink it.

These interactions are relevant because they embody one of the few remaining  experiences shared by a majority of people where they are paying explicit attention to the level of water they have and how it affects them. This combination of common sensory memories can be drawn upon to communicate scale much more effectively than terms like gallons or liters. For example, consider these stats by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on average home water use [8]:

With these in mind, and given that there are 16 eight-ounce glasses of water in a gallon, a little math shows that on average:

  • Taking a bath uses 576 glasses of water.
  • Taking a shower uses 32 to 80 glasses of water per minute depending on your showerhead.
  • Brushing your teeth, washing your hands and or face, and shaving, if you leave the sink on, uses 16 to 32 glasses of water per minute depending how old our faucet is.
  • Dishwashers, depending on how new and what brand your model is, use up to 96 to 256 glasses of water per cycle.
  • Dishwashing by hand, depending on your faucet type, how many dishes you’re washing, and your methods, can use between 128 and 432 glasses of water.
  • A washing machine, depending on your model, may use between 400 and 640 glasses of water per load.
  • Flushing the toilet, depending on your model, may use between 25.6 and 64 glasses of water, and
  • having some water can use as much as or more than 1 glass of water, depending on refills.

While the initial measurements (as USGS collected them) may be surprising for some of you as they are, for me personally, this conversion to glasses comes off as much more impactful and dramatic because I have a better sensory connection to the thought of pouring 640 glasses of water into my washing machine, or stacking 400 glasses in my shower after being in there for five minutes. It’s just easier to visualize. And when I’ve talked to other people about this concept, I often noticed them taken aback by this revisualization as well.

When converting the water consumption of industrial manufacturing processes to glasses, the scale exponentially increases, especially when we include the indirect processes that make up a product’s supply and demand chains. We’ll be accessing this via a concept called “emergy” [9] which is a method of analysis that expresses, measures, and accounts for all different forms energy consumed in direct and indirect transformations to make a product or service.

The product we’ll be talking about this time is denim jeans. Adam Taubenfligel, a creative director for the denim company Triarchy/Atelier Denim, in a 2017 article on LinkedIn [10], said it can take as much as 2900 gallons of water to make one pair of traditional cotton jeans. That, converted, would be 46,400 glasses of water per pair. This includes the water consumed indirectly on their supply chain, such as the water it takes to grow the cotton crops necessary for manufacturing one pair of pants, as well as the manufacturing processes said cotton goes through.

According to CNN in a 2013 article on the 140th anniversary of jeans, consumers in the US buy approximately 450 million pairs of jeans every year [11]. While it isn’t clear from their reporting how many of those jeans are ones being resold, and while production methods likely aren’t uniform between different businesses, imagine how many glasses of water it would take to produce 450 million pairs by Taubenfligel’s estimates:

  • 2900 gallons x 450 million pairs = 1,305,000,000,000 gallons
  • 1,305,000,000,000 gallons x 16 glasses per gallon = 20,880,000,000,000 glasses.

The answer is approximately 20.9 trillion glasses (1.305 trillion gallons) of water per year. Assuming your stomach is a bottomless pit, if you wanted to drink that many glasses, and say it took you 30 seconds to finish one glass, it would take you almost 20 million years to polish all of that off.

  • 20,880,000,000,000 glasses x 30 seconds / 60 seconds per minute / 60 minutes per hour / 24 hours per day / 365 days per year = roughly 19,863,013.7 years

And this consumption increases even further when we examine a pair of jeans’ processes on the demand chain as well. Once a pair is bought by a consumer, at least in the developed world, it will be likely be washed in a washing machine many times over. Utilizing our USGS math from before, one pair of jeans getting washed twice a month in a washing machine could use as much as 15,360 glasses of water a year until it gets thrown away.

  • 640 glasses x 2 washing machine cycles x 12 months = 15,360 glasses

And this is just one product of the incalculable number being produced every day with water.

I need to end the article here because I don’t have any answers at this time on how to solve over consumption, but I can say this; we aren’t the people we once were and our planet isn’t what it used to be either, largely because of how we’ve structured our societies around consuming it’s resources. If we want future generations to have a chance at prospering, we need to change the ways we see both ourselves and our consumption, and reassess and act on our products’ and services’ supply and demand chains now.


  1. The United Nations world water development report, 2017: Wastewater: the untapped resource. Retrieved from https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000247153
  2. USA Today (2018, August 14). PUMPED DRY: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater-FULL VIDEO. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjsThobgq7Q
  3. VICE News (2019, January 23). Cape Town Cops Are Punishing People For Using Too Much Water (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__JveusPtYg
  4. TIME (2018, February 8) Cape Town Water Crisis: How to Live With 13 Gallons Of Water A Day. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJOTpogYmjg
  5. VICE (2012, November 13). New York’s Toxic Wasteland: America’s Water Crisis (Part 1/3). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrUVLpFaUoM
  6. VICE News (2019, January 21). India Wants To Use Flesh Eating Turtles To Rid Ganges Of Decomposing Bodies (HBO). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8lu9ntmPJo
  7. VICE (2012, September 6). Garbage Island: An Ocean Full Of Plastic (Part 1/3). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D41rO7mL6zM
  8. United States Department of the Interior | United States Geological Survey (2016, December 2). Water Questions & Answers How Much Water Does The Average Person Use At Home Per Day? Retrieved from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/qa-home-percapita.html
  9. Wikipedia. Emergy. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergy
  10. Adam Taubenfligel (2017, August 1). How Much Water Are you Wearing? Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-much-water-you-wearing-adam-taubenfligel/
  11. Daphne Sashin and Toby Lyles (2013, May 20). Blue Jeans Celebrate 140 Years. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2013/05/20/living/blue-jeans-history-irpt/index.html

Author: Louis Fine

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