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Comparing enviro-water use worldwide

A View From the Edge

Recently, a study has been performed concerning cotton and the amount of water needed to grow and then process cotton into clothing. First off, it is necessary to ask: What type of water?

Water falls into three categories. The water that falls from the sky, let’s call that green. The water that comes from plants, wells and reservoirs otherwise fit for human consumption, let’s call that blue. And the water that comes from recycling industrial water, let’s call that grey.

In some parts of the world, like Tanzania and Uganda, the cotton season is short but very productive following the monsoon season. Green water.

Similarly, Egypt has half the water use green and the other half blue.

India, on the other hand is 30% green, 55% blue and the rest grey.

China doesn’t report where the water comes from but best guess by the World Bank is mostly blue or green.

India and China together produce 50% of the world’s cotton crops.

Now, here’s comes a conundrum. It has been calculated that to make one pair of jeans takes 26,000 gallons. The water needed for one person, say a man, is a gallon a day. So, the water needed for one pair of jeans is the water needed for 26,000 people for one day, or one person for 72 years. Even assuming 50% of that water is recycled (which it is not), that’s still enough water for a man for half a lifetime, for one pair of jeans!

Fashion is a funny thing. No one has really started to ask the questions of fashion’s impact on the environment.

Drinking water shortages are everywhere; just ask Detroit or California, never mind asking people in sub-Sahara countries or India or rural China.

But, you may ask, what are we supposed to wear? Putting aside the animal rights’ issues, a tanned hide of a cow only requires about the same water usage as cotton and lasts 10 times as long. Try synthetic fabrics? Well, it takes 2.5 gallons of water to make every 1 gallon of gasoline (you didn’t know that one, I’ll bet). And synthetic fabrics? A plastic water bottle takes twice the amount of fresh water to make than the water it can hold — and the cap needs another 2 cups. A T-shirt in polyester needs about 265 gallons of water all told — whereas a cotton T-shirt uses less than that to make but a lot more to grow the cotton in the first place. That cotton T-shirt uses up a total of 1,320 gallons of water. One T-shirt!

And let’s look at your cell phone — yes, I’ll bet you never considered just how much water was used making that cell phone. Cool, clear, perfectly drinkable water — 3,500 gallons of it. Enough for one man to drink for 9.5 years.

OK, so there is not a lot you can do. All these are everyday necessities. But you can stop and think when your vanity needs a new cool pair of jeans, or that new gizmo cell phone that looks so cool. It may be cool, but somewhere someone in a cotton or cell phone-producing country is going without fresh water and you might just consider them first.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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