Changing Planet

American Lifestyle Costs Nearly 2000 Gallons of Water Each Day

By now, most of us probably turn off the tap while brushing our teeth. If we’ve lived through a drought maybe we’ve shaved a couple minutes off our showers, and even ripped out some thirsty turf grass and planted drought-tolerant shrubs.

What more can we do to conserve water?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

The stuff of life is just plain thirsty. Embedded in that hamburger is perhaps 630 gallons of water–most of it going to grow the corn to feed the cow. And that cotton T-shirt probably gulped some 760 gallons between field and factory. The mobility of our lives takes water, too–about 13 gallons of H2O for every gallon of gasoline at the pump.

Added all up, the average American lifestyle demands nearly 2,000 gallons a day–about twice the global average. If there’s going to be sufficient water to meet everyone’s needs–and those of rivers and fish and birds and mussels, too–we’re going to need to shrink our footprints and share Earth’s finite water more equitably.

Saving water at home–indoors and outdoors–is an important place to start, because it helps protect your drinking water source. But on average, home water use makes up only 5% of the average American’s daily water footprint. Diet–at 55 percent–accounts for the lion’s share, followed by electricity use and transportation at 35 percent. Purchases of clothes, computers, magazines and other consumer goods make up the remaining 5 percent.


The good news is that there are many ways to take a slice out of your water footprint pie. As part of National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative, we’ve developed a tool to help you do this. Use it to see how water flows in surprising ways–and volumes–through your daily life. See how your footprint compares to the national average, or to those of your friends. Then–and this is important–don’t waste energy feeling guilty. Instead, get engaged. We’re asking everyone to take a pledge to reduce their footprint in ways that feel right for them. If you’re near the national average of 2000 gallons per day, try for a 20 percent reduction–that’s 400 gallons a day potentially freed up for nature. If 1 million people pledge this kind of reduction–that’s 146 billion gallons a year.

As individuals, we can make a start. But to keep rivers flowing and ecosystems healthy will also take the efforts of corporations, dam managers, energy and water providers, and many others. Together, a societal goal of shrinking our collective water footprint by 25 percent by 2025 is within reach. Water is life. Let’s share it.



Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

Sandra Postel directs the independent Global Water Policy Project and lectures, writes, and consults on international water issues. She is also Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and serves as lead water expert for the Society's freshwater initiative. Sandra is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, the basis for a PBS documentary. Her essay "Troubled Waters" was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing. Sandra is a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and has been named one of the "Scientific American 50" for her contributions to water policy.

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