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Vienna | 9.9.2008 | 18:51 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

Virtual Insanity
  Australia is suffering cruelly under the claws of what is being called the "Big Dry", a record-breaking drought that has reduced parts of the world-famous Murray-Darling wetlands into dry mud flats only interspersed with the odd toxic puddle, each tinted the colour of foul orangeade.

Out in the country hardy, proud farmers are finally throwing in the towel on generations-worth of tough work and are looking for jobs that are less dependent on rain.

In the city, or so I've heard, parents have stop-watching their teenage kids in the shower to make sure they don't waste too much of what has finally been recognized as the valuable commodity that it is.

Well, actually, the stop-watching tends to go on the other way around, as Australian water expert Jim Gill corrects me. It's the more ecologically sensitive younger generation that is bullying their parents out of the shower as the drought-stricken southern continent adapts to a world in which your "water footprint" has developed from a wet splodge on the bathroom tiles to a concept very much as important as your "carbon footprint."
Ecology's Beef with Beef
  Having spent the day at the World Water Congress in Vienna today, I might recommend both generations to put the 'shower issue' to the back of their minds just for the moment, and think briefly about what they eat.

Aussies, as you'll probably know, love a good barbecue, bless them, but meat - the Barby's central focus - has been deemed the enemy of water sustainability.

Let me explain. This is a story about 'virtual water'. In Europe we think we are responsible for the 140 litres of the water each of us runs through our taps every day for the purposes of drinking, cooking and (hopefully) washing. But that, my friends, is just the beginning of the story. My morning espresso, in 'virtual water terms' was responsible for that exact same figure of 'virtual water'.

Or actually it was responsible for 280 litres since I, perennial Schlafmütze that I am, had an espresso doppio.

The extravagence of the executive under-class knows no bounds!
My Pond Life
  'Virtual water' is a term coined by the British ecologist John Anthony Allan and takes into account the water used to irrigate the plants that produce the coffee beans, the water used in cleaning and processing the beans and even getting them to your local supermarket.

Even my innocent slice of toast had soaked up 40 litres of virtual water. In fact by the time I had totted up the water consumption of my lavishly bohemian breakfast, noting with dismay than my sun-dried tomatoes were anything but dry, I had drenched a small pond of water.

And I wasn't even at work yet.

Luckily I don't fancy meat in the mornings or it might have been a minor lake on my conscience.

When it comes to swallowing water, animal produce is the unrivalled King. Thirsty cattle, for example, not only drink a lot of water, but they also consume a lot of food that usually has to be grown, and therefore watered, itself. The virtual water cost of a kilo of beef is apparently a whopping 16,600 litres of water.

Even a café latte will bump up your "water footprint". A mere millilitre of milk equals a whole litre of virtual water. That's maths that even I can do.

Since 93% of the fresh water we use is consumed by agriculture, when water becomes scarce its pretty obvious that the choices we make at the supermarket are going to have a big impact.

The average European consumes between 4,000 and 4,500 litres of virtual water a day - if we cut down on meat consumption that figure would surely fall.
Using someone else's water
  But why I am filling your head with these statistics? Austria is not Australia, despite what the British Post Office thinks. There is no shortage of water in Western Europe.

Well take the UK: The Englishman (that wasteful extravagant breed) has one of the biggest water footprints in Europe, but he might point out that the skies have been piddling on his black umbrella almost non-stop for the entire summer. Ask my colleague Robert Rotifer.

But statistics show that it is not predominately this plentiful British water that he is actually using. In fact only 38% of his virtual water comes from the UK.

He munches strawberries from arid southern Spain, he does his skin a bit of good with some sponge-like avocado from deserty Israel, or he eats mangetout out of season because it has been flown in from Africa.

This is the way the market works, of course. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't sometimes seem mildly insane.

The Sea of Galilee, so well known to all fans of Sunday School, is at its lowest ever level. It's been irrigated to death by farmers selling us fruits that are simply not native to the desert.

Now who would deny the Israeli fruit farmer his livelihood? Well, certainly not his own government with elections never far away! And Africa needs its foreign trade, of course, it needs to sell produce to Europe. It needs our Euros.

But can this come at the expense of a sustainable water management plan?
These are questions that will have to be answered,
  the world population is growing and thirsty megacities are growing, particularly in the Third World. We are going to have to be more careful and sophisticated in our dealings with water.

Strangely enough water often has no price at all in many countries (that's why strawberries imported from Spain are so cheap) and yet, after air, it must be our most precious asset.

I remind you that we can go without gold for more than a few days!

Today I spoke with a Swiss expert Alexander Zehnder about how we could benefit from pooling our agricultural resources more closely together and avoid food being used as an economic weapon.

I learned how the Chinese have managed to develop a less water.intensive breed of rice that doesn't need to be constantly submerged.

I heard from an American engineer called Paul Brown about how we can learn the lessons of Singapore, whose water supplies were once turned off during a time of war, and prepare our growing cities for increasing water independence.

And I got a report, again, from the real front-line of global warming - Western Australia, which finds itself in the unenviable position as crash test dummy in a warming world.

If you listen to Fm4's Reality Check, you might well find out what they had to say!

The lunch at the congress was, by the way, beef!

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