We Use How Much Water? Scary Water Footprints, Country by Country

woman swimming in a large pool

Hello World / Getty Images

A country's water footprint, as opposed to simple water use, is the total amount of H2O needed for the production of goods and services. Figuring out a country's water footprint means adding all the water used plus the water inherent in products imported, then minus the water in exports. Using this top-down method, the average water footprint in the world is 1,243 cubic meters a year. As you already might have guessed, in the U.S. we are water hogs - we use more than twice the world average, or 2,500 cubic meters. That's equivalent to an Olympic-sized swimming pool for each and every one of us, or 2.5 million liters each. The Chinese, to compare, use 700 cubic meters annually. Read on for the water burden of American beef eating, Italian pasta slurping and India's vegetarianism.

Water riches, water poverty

The top five biggest average daily users of water are the U.S., Australia, Italy, Japan, and Mexico - all five of these use well over 300 liters daily. The countries where water poverty is the worst and water usage is the lowest are Mozambique, Rwanda, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Uganda - these five use 15 liters or less daily. While some parts of our water footprint, including how much corporations and agriculture use or waste water, are not under our control, we can find simple ways to cut our daily water use, and even save money.

Butcher's meat case

Gentl and Hyers / Getty Images

Where's the beef? It's our big water footprint

The U.S. has one of the largest water footprints, and the absolute highest daily household use of 575 liters. Our large footprint is primarily because of our beef habit - large consumption of meat per capita. High consumption of water-guzzling industrial products also contributes.

Amazingly, one kilo of boneless beef takes a massive 16,000 liters of water to produce, much of that used to grow the grain the cows will eat. One hamburger uses 2,400 liters of water! We in the U.S. also have the dubious distinction of being one of the eight countries - the others are China, India, the Russian Federation, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, and Pakistan - that together represent 50% of the entire world's water footprint. Weekday vegetarianism, here we come. We can also stop buying bottled water (the bottle itself entails the use of 7 liters of water) and really reduce paper consumption (10 liters per sheet).

Unbaked pizza in a bread wood-fired oven

Stefan Cristian Cioata / Getty Images

Italy: No more pizza, no more pasta?

For a small country, Italy has a very high consumption of water - 2,330 cubic meters annually, nearly as high as in the U.S. Studies have shown that in daily living Italians use about 380 liters of water a day. But when the amount of water used to make the foods Italians eat and the clothes they wear are taken into account (i.e. the water footprint), the consumption is approximately 17 times higher. Figures from water researcher Maite Aldaya show that the water required to make a standard Pizza Margarita is about 1,200 liters, while a kilo of pasta has a water footprint of 1,900 liters of water. And leather shoes? 8,000 liters of water. Experts say illegal wells are a big problem in Italy, as are scant water resources and high leakage rates in the Italian water supply system.

Man washing his hands at an old fashioned waterpump. Street scene in old Delhi.

VanWyckExpress / Getty Images

India: Biggest water problems, and promising solutions

The simple truth is that in many countries, water is pumped up for agricultural use at a higher rate than it can be replenished. While India's water footprint is below average at 980 cubic meters per capita, the massive population makes the country's overall footprint 12% of the world's total. India has faced dire water shortages, but on the bright side the country has adopted more rainwater harvesting than in other regions. By harnessing rainwater, villages like Rajsamadhiya have become self-sufficient in their water supplies. India's higher incidence of vegetarianism (approximately 30% of the population) does play a role in keeping individual footprints lower - the water contained in our diets varies with a vegetarian diet using 2.6 cubic meters of water each day, while a U.S.-style meat based diet uses over 5 cubic meters.

Overlooking the Yellow River Stone Forest of Gansu

zhouyousifang / Getty Images

China: low individual use but big water problems

In many parts of China, people are getting by with just two 86 liters of water each day (2002 figures). Compare that to the Italians (380 liters) or to us (575 liters). Two of the biggest water variables, however, are population and diet. China's big population gives it one of the world's biggest water footprints (12% of the global footprint, as opposed to the United States' 9% share), and as the country develops, per capita meat consumption is also rising. Water shortages are concentrated in Northern China, so the challenge is for regions of China to become water self-sufficient.