What's your Puddle Print?

Just as it's becoming fashionable to know (and willfully shrink) your carbon footprint, environmentalists and scientists are starting to talk about a new kind of footprint -- one that depletes water rather than spews greenhouse gas.

A new joint report by the Food Ethics Council and Sustain, an organization working to improve nutrition in the developing world, calls on food and drink manufacturers to add a new "water footprint" label to their products. In their report, FEC and Sustain found that most consumers have little to no awareness of the amount of "virtual" water used to produce products they eat and drink every day.

For example, it takes 37 gallons of water to produce the one cup of coffee you grab on your way to work. If five or six people in a subway car bring a cup of coffee for their commute, that's over 200 gallons of water in just one car of one train! Extrapolating the amount of virtual water to the rest of the coffee-drinking world is a little overwhelming, to say the least. Cattle, which require constant food supplies of grain or grass while being raised, turn up as hamburger with a shocking virtual water print. One pound of beef translates to over 2,000 gallons of water. Coffee and beef are just two examples; the report looks at all sorts of popular products. Look at waterfootprint.org for the virtual water print of your favorite foods and drinks.

Although water is a renewable resource, the earth's burgeoning population demands more of it each year, while longer and more widespread droughts are becoming the norm due to climate change. Experts at a water-technologies conference in Milwaukee yesterday predicted entrepreneurs of the near future will trade shares of virtual water. An international water technologies conference (WATEC) will take place in Tel Aviv this fall, bringing together scientists and policy-makers in the self-proclaimed "Silicon Valley of water technology" and cementing water's center-stage position in the world market.

Water scarcity in the United States has so far had little effect on citizens' day to day lives. Maybe we're asked to take shorter showers or turn off our lawn sprinklers, but overall we have not yet tangibly felt the value of water. All this is about to change, according to scientists, engineers, business people and politicians all over the world. In coming years water will not only be a drink, but a valuable commodity for sale, use and purchase.