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The ‘virtual’ water that the Swiss consume abroad

Drinking water on tap: a "luxury" that two billion people in the world cannot afford © Keystone / Eq Images / Manu Friederich

A Swiss resident consumes 4,200 litres of water per day - just over the global average. But a large part of an individual’s “water footprint” is used abroad in countries where water is scarce. 

According to the United NationsExternal link, around four billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population, suffer water shortages that last at least one month a year. In 2015, three out of ten people had no access to safe drinking water. Friday’s World Water DayExternal link examines the causes of this exclusion and how to combat inequalities. 

Switzerland, known as the “water tower of Europe”, has abundant water resources. Yet it is not immune to global water management problems. 

According to UN data, a Swiss resident consumes on average 4,200 litres of water per day. This “water footprint” takes into account an individual’s direct use of water – for example, for cooking, washing and cleaning – and indirect use, such as “virtual” water needed to produce agricultural and industrial goods. 

For example, it requires 166 litres of water to produce one cup of coffee, explains Emmanuel Reynard, professor of geography and sustainability at the University of Lausanne.

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Although Switzerland’s per capita water consumption is just over the global average, the country’s water footprint shows that much of the water consumed by the Swiss is actually used abroad. 

In all, 82% of Switzerland’s water footprint is attributable to imported goods and services. This compares to 20% for the United States and 60% for Italy, according to the Barilla Center for Food & NutritionExternal link

A vegetarian menu reduces an individual’s water footprint by half, according to the Barilla Center For Food & Nutrition. 

It calculated that the production of one kilogram of beef requires 19,525 litres of water, 7,485 litres of water for 1kg of pork and 4,805 litres of water for 1kg of poultry. This drops to 1,710 litres of water for 1kg of pasta and 335 litres for 1kg of seasonal vegetables.

The high Swiss percentage is “problematic”, commented Sophie Nguyen Khoa ManExternal link, an expert for security and integrated water resources management at the Helvetas non-governmental organisation. 

“Most imported goods and services come from developing countries where water resources are not always accessible in sufficient quantity and/or quality to meet the needs of the producing country,” she said. 

A joint reportExternal link by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and several universities, published in 2012, also pointed out that “Switzerland’s well-being depends on water from other countries (…) often from regions of the world where water is very scarce”. These include Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The Helvetas specialist said Switzerland can play a decisive role in reducing its water footprint by supporting countries, particularly via sustainable water management programmes. These include adopting methods to reduce water consumption in the production of agricultural goods, reducing water pollution during industrial processes and promoting platforms for dialogue and exchange for more efficient and equitable water management. 

Reynard adds that consumer awareness could also be increased by labelling products that have a high water footprint. 

Ein Bauer mit seiner Frau, die ein Kind auf dem Arm hält


‘We need water!’

This content was published on Water is an increasingly scarce resource in Bolivia. Switzerland supports rural communities with climate adaptation strategies.

Read more: ‘We need water!’

Translated from French by Simon Bradley

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