In each of these three sectors, there are various ways we waste or lose water that we could otherwise be using, saving or re-using.
In this guide, we look at the different ways we waste and lose water across the three sectors.
We also look at potential solutions that may reduce or eliminate water loss and waste.
Summary – How We Waste & Lose Water Everyday In Society
Ultimately, water waste and loss percentages across the different sectors of society are going to be different in every individual country, State/province, region, and city or town.
Each geographic location therefore needs it’s own assessment of how it’s losing and wasting water.
But, some of the general ways we lose and waste water are:
Agriculture (& Irrigation)
Some estimates indicate that 60% of the water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted via runoff or evapotranspiration, and that is can be avoided
On top of this, irrigation systems can be inefficient (only 30 to 40% efficient in some instances), leak, not be precise, and not as effective as they could be with better technology or better designed systems (especially where flood irrigation is used)
Certain farming practices can lead to less effective irrigation. Not maintaining soil health is one example, as poor soil health limits the ability of the soil to retain water
Political and financial barriers can be in the way of upgrading irrigation systems and renewing distribution networks
The true supply cost of water is not being paid by the agricultural industry in some regions, and this can lead to excessive water use
Compared to the renewal rate of ground water and surface water sources, water is being withdrawn at an unsustainable rate in some regions (so, there is a mismanagement of withdrawals)
Water pollution from fertilizer runoff, pesticide use and livestock effluent degrades water resources and leads to less available water to use in the total water supply
Growing water hungry crops and products, and growing in dry and hot climates (where low rainfall and evaporation can be issues), can both use more water than is necessary, compared to growing other types of crops and products, and importing or finding other ways to minimize farming in hot and dry climates
Industry (& Energy Generation)
Waste water not being re-used directly, or not being treated and then re-used or recycled – this is perhaps where most potential to save water in industry is
Waste water not being treated before being discharged, and polluting water sources
Thermo electric power generation can use the most water along with agriculture – especially when they use fresh water for cooling equipment. This can be a problem with once through cooling water systems
Certain types of energy production are more water efficient – natural gas and renewable energy for example might be more water efficient than coal or biofuels
[It should be noted though that some energy generation sources return water to the source – they should be differentiated to energy generation sources that consume water without returning it]
Water leaks at processing plants via pipes, fittings and valves. Inadequate pipe fitting and plumbing techniques can be a problem (materials and compounds used can be incompatible for example)
A lack of clean in place systems, or sustainable CIP systems
Not recovering condensate
Producing products that have water intensive industrial processes
Not being aware of the full direct and indirect water usage of different products
The textile industry is a big producer of waste water
Beef in particular uses a large % of the water used for animal products
The plants and crops grown for beverages like sodas, beers, juices and coffee can use a lot of water
Vehicles and average domestic cars can use a lot of water to manufacture
Municipal (& Households)
Water can be lost and wasted either prior to getting to households and public services, or after getting there (i.e. at the household or public service level)
Water can be lost through public water supply networks and pipes that are aging, or that haven’t been properly managed or maintained
Water can also be lost through wastage in treatment plants
In regards to public supply water pipes owned by water companies, a lack of active leakage control and pressure management such as sensors, leak detection software, intelligent water pumps, water audit programs, and an overall lack of systems to track and monitor water distribution, leak and use can lead to water loss and waste
Some water utilities or water supply companies are far bigger offenders than others
Metering inaccuracies, water theft and unmetered authorized consumption are some further causes of water loss and waste prior to water getting to households
Developing countries face much more severe challenges than developed countries, such as meeting basic water access and sanitation standards, that prevent them from focusing on preventing leaks and water waste
Corporations, governments, and utilities all need to work together to address water supply side water loss and waste – the burden can’t just fall on one or two of the parties
Large scale water mains replacements and upgrades can be disruptive and difficult to do for various reasons – especially in big cities like London as one example
Water leakage and loss from public supply pipes can’t be completely eliminated, but each city or town might figure out what the minimum and maximum amount of detectable and recoverable water is in a given year, and work around those numbers
After water reaches households, water is lost through household leaks – pipes, faucets, and so on
Appliances and devices can be old and water inefficient
People can use their appliances and devices in a way that wastes water unnecessarily e.g. by not fully loading their dishwasher or washing machine with every use
People can run water from taps unnecessarily when not in use, or instead of filling a sink and turning the tap off
People using water outside their house in hot and dry climates may use more water
People with more lawn and plants, or certain types of lawn and plants may use more water
Inefficient, leaky and ineffective irrigation and sprinkler systems can waste water, and so can systems that aren’t maintained and operated properly
Refer to the guide below for potential solutions for each sector
Other Notes …
Water waste and loss can even extend to include the opportunity cost of producing and using a more water intensive product over a less water intensive product (when looking at the full product lifecycle of each product)
Our choices of products, activities, lifestyles, governments, and social systems impact our ability to have sustainable water resources and supplies
Where We Use The Most Water Is Where We Are Likely To Lose & Waste A lot Of Water
Developing and low income countries use more in agriculture (up to 90%) and developed countries can use up to and over 50% on industry and power generation.
It makes sense that agriculture (and irrigation) firstly, and industry/power generation secondly is where we might waste and lose a lot of water.
Each country, region and city in the world will lose and waste water in different ways and in different shares.
Why It’s Important Not To Waste And Lose Water
Some of the main reasons include, but aren’t limited to:
- We need water for a range of critical uses in society
- The effects associated with water quantity related issues can be severe in water scarce and water stressed regions
- The waste and loss of water contributes to global water problems
How We Waste & Lose Water In Agriculture (& Irrigation)
- Currently … 60 percent of the water diverted or pumped for irrigation is wasted—via runoff into waterways or evapotranspiration [and, this does not have to be the case]
- About 40 percent of water used in irrigation is wasted through unsustainable practices such as field flooding.
- The agricultural sector is the largest and often one of the most inefficient users of water [particularly from intensive groundwater pumping that depletes aquifers, and because some farmers aren’t paying the real or full supply cost of the water they are using … which can lead to excessive or inefficient use of water]
- … agriculture is also a major source of water pollution of water ways and ground water sources from agricultural fertiliser runoff, pesticide use and livestock effluents [which degrades water quality and can make it unsuitable for other uses]
- [Growing water hungry crops like rice]
- In southern countries of the world, water used for irrigation represents up to 91% of general water consumption but agricultural production is equivalent to a third of production in industrialized countries as half of the water destined for irrigation evaporates due to high temperatures or gets lost due to leaks in the water supply distribution networks.
- Serious financial and political problems limit upgrading to more water efficient irrigation systems, and renewing distribution networks
- … withdrawal for irrigation uses … in many areas exceeds the water capacity of water flows, rainfalls and regeneration of nature reserves.
- … wasteful irrigation systems are major contributors to water scarcity
- [some] irrigation systems … are [only] 30 to 40 percent efficient
- Agriculture based on fields that temporarily flood is also a major problem because most of that water is wasted through evaporation
- … pesticide and herbicide runoff from farm fields … pollute rivers and lakes [leading to degradation in water quality]
- … soil erosion and salt buildup [are further problems from] irrigation.
- [there are certain water hungry crops like cotton and sugarcane]
4 major reasons for water usage and water waste in agriculture are:
- Growing crops or meat production that uses a lot more water than others
- Non precision use of irrigation
- Not using enough alternatives to irrigation – rainwater harvesting and treated waste water
- Not enhancing enough water retention in the soil
How We Waste & Lose Water In Industry (& Energy Production)
In industry, water is lost and waste through:
- Leaks – A common problem in processing plants is leaky water pipes, fittings, and valves. Often leaks occur because standard proper pipe fitting and plumbing techniques have not been used, such as using incompatible piping material and sealant compounds. Even a very small leak of one drop per minute totals up to 10 gal. per year.
- A lack of Clean In Place Systems
- Condensate not being recovered
- Waste water not being re-used and/or recycled
- [The industrial processes for some foods such as sugar, pet food and milk can use a lot of direct, and indirect water]
- [Agriculture and power generation are responsible for the most direct water withdrawals – about 90%]
- … [but] a majority of water usage (about 60 percent) is indirect: about 96 percent of industry sectors use more water indirectly than directly in their supply chains.
- [So, there should be a distinction between direct and indirect water use]
- Notes on some different industries are:
- Livestock, Fruit & Vegetable Farming – [some foods and crops are far more water intensive to produce than others]. Basic irrigation technology and lack of water management in irrigation are two water wasters in farming
- Power Generation – Water is used at almost every stage of energy production … [we can measure water used per] kilowatt-hour of electricity … . Within the energy industry, the most water-hungry process is the thermoelectric-power industry … to cool electricity-generating equipment. Electrical power production uses more water than any other single industrial process … Since surface water is the source for more than 99 percent of the water used for thermoelectric-power generation, energy plants located in coastal areas with a ready supply of salt water for cooling equipment got higher marks in water conservation than those facilities forced to use fresh water. Not all energy is created equal when it comes to water usage. … natural gas can be far more water efficient per energy per unit volume of water consumed, [whilst some biodiesels are very water inefficient] because large amounts of water are required for irrigation of the soil in which the soybeans grow, then more water to turn the soybeans into biofuel.
- Textiles & Garments – The textile industry is one of the biggest creators of wastewater worldwide [and it’s questionable as to what happens to all this waste water]
- Meat Production – While fruit and vegetable agriculture uses more water than meat production … [a study indicates] ’29 percent of the total water footprint of the agricultural sector in the world is related to the production of animal products.’ One-third of that water is used to raise beef cattle.
- Beverage Industry – includes sodas, beers, juices and other drinks. … production and bottling processes [aren’t as water intensive as] the plants: the beverage industry requires farmed products such as sugar, barley, coffee, chocolate, lemons, vanilla and other plant-derived ingredients. [Soda, beer and coffee can be quite water intensive to make]
- Automotive Manufacturing – it takes about 39,000 gallons of water to produce the average domestic car, including the tires. Major water uses in the automotive manufacturing industry include surface treatment and coating, paint spray booths, washing/rinsing/hosing, cooling, air conditioning systems and boilers.
- Read more about water use for foods, crops and products in the different industries in this guide
- Effluent water [is] ‘greywater’ [and] is generated through wastewater municipal treatment plants, treated and discharged.
- … over 95% of grey water is simply discharged into surface ponds.
- In the US alone power generation facilities withdraw 136 billion gallons a day, but consume just 4 billion, often in once-through cooling water systems.
- Wastewater in industry and business is a major cause of water loss and waste
- … energy generation is a major user of water.
- In the future, more nuclear or renewables could reduce the use of water, but if gas or other fossil fuel power plants are used with technology to capture their carbon emissions and store it underground, that could lead to increased water use.
How We Waste & Lose Water Domestically & In Households (Municipally)
In the United States in 2014:
- Leaks …
- The average family can waste 180 gallons per week, or 9,400 gallons of water annually, from household leaks. That’s equivalent to the amount of water needed to wash more than 300 loads of laundry.
- Household leaks can waste approximately nearly 900 billion gallons of water annually nationwide. That’s equal to the annual household water use of nearly 11 million homes.
- Using Appliances & Household Devices Efficiently & Conservative …
- [Running a dishwasher that isn’t full can waste water]
- [Not turning off the tap while you aren’t using it – like when brushing teeth, shaving, hand washing dishes – can waste water]
- Being Mindful Of Outdoor Water Use In Arid, Or Hot & Dry Climates …
- [Water use outside in arid regions can use far more water than cooler climates]
- [Lawns can use a lot of water]
- Wind, Evaporation, Runoff & Inefficient Irrigation Methods and Systems ….
- As much as 50 percent of the water we use outdoors is lost due to wind, evaporation, and runoff caused by inefficient irrigation methods and systems. A household with an automatic landscape irrigation system that isn’t properly maintained and operated can waste up to 25,000 gallons of water annually.
- If [a landscape irrigation system] is well managed, a household’s irrigation water use can be reduced by 15 percent, or nearly 7,600 gallons of water, annually. That’s the amount of water needed to take 480 showers.
– epa.gov (epa.gov gives stats on the above points)
In 2015 in the US:
- About 8 percent of water supplied to Californian homes [was] wasted [which is about 237 billion gallons a year]
- The drip of leaky pipes and faucets in homes are the main causes
- You can view a % breakdown of total water use (including outdoors), and indoor water use in Californian homes here (takepart.com)
Globally in 2015:
- 46bn litres of drinking water are lost globally every day
- [Some of the main causes might be] aging water networks which haven’t been properly managed, metering inaccuracies, theft or unmetered authorised consumption
- [Other causes might be lack of active leakage control and pressure management, lack of maintaining stable pressure in pipes within a distribution network, lack of technologies like intelligent water pumps and distributed sensor systems for leak detection, lack of water audit programs, lack of information on major forms of water consumption and water loss encountered in drinking water utilities, lack of a set of rational performance indicators that evaluate utilities on system-specific attributes such as the average pressure in the distribution system and total length of water mains]
- Developing countries … have to focus on basic water access and hygiene over any leakages [and this is a problem in being able to free up resources to reduce water loss and leakage]
- The burden of managing water loss is often naturally pinned to utilities and government, but corporations need to get involved as a matter of social responsibility
- In the UK in 2018…
- [Inadequate infrastructure belonging to major water companies was responsible for] losing the equivalent to 20 million people’s water usage every day … In a major report, the agency said three billion litres of water a day are lost through leakage
- [Some say individuals have some blame for water waste as] the average person currently gets through 140 litres in 24 hours.
- In total a third of water taken from the natural environment is wasted through leaks, wastage in treatment plants and in private homes …
In the UK, in 2017…
- 20% of all water leaks out before it even reaches homes
- … more than three billion litres of water leaks every day, a level unchanged for at least four years and just 7% lower than the level in 2000.
- Thames Water is the biggest water company in England and also the leakiest, with 20,500 litres escaping every day per kilometre of main, more than double the national average, and equating to 171 litres per property per day.
- [One problem with coming up with solutions is that] Large scale mains replacements are disruptive, especially with two-thirds of our network running under the busiest and hardest to reach roads in London.
In 2017 in the UK & Wales…
- England and Wales lost 3.1 billion litres of water every day from leakage …
- Thames Water is the worst offender as it loses around 179 litres of water per property each day.
- The best is Southern Water which leaks less than 80 litres per property per day.
- Overall leakage levels have increased by 1.2 per cent on the previous year
In Western Australia in 2014…
- Undetected leakage from pipes accounts for most of the recoverable water loss from the water supply network
- While it cannot be completely eliminated, current loss is around 10.5 billion litres above the 19 billion litres a year that Water Corporation estimates is the lowest achievable level of loss. Of the 10.5 billion litres considered recoverable, about seven to eight billion litres was undetected leakage from pipes.
- In 2012-13, the Water Corporation supplied over 357 billion litres of water, of which almost 314 billion litres was metered consumption.
- The difference of over 43 billion litres, or 12 per cent of total water supplied, included over 13 billion litres that was used but not metered or billed for, and almost 30 billion litres (eight per cent of total supply) that was physically lost.
How To Prevent Water Wastage & Loss In Agriculture (& Irrigation)
How To Prevent Water Wastage & Loss In Industry (& Energy Generation)
How To Prevent Water Wastage & Loss Domestically & In Households