The kitchen sink tap was wide open. Beneath it was a sufuria (cooking pan). A few seconds later, there was enough water in the sufuria for ugali that would satisfy the appetites of two hungry adults. My friend Mulhat wasn’t a big ugali fan so I knew that I would end up consuming most of it. But she was crazy about the sukuma wiki (kales) that I had just prepared so we both had an equal stake in the upcoming dinner. Besides, both of us absolutely adored the fried beef she had cooked earlier that day.
As I watched Mulhat pour maize flour into the boiling water, I started thinking about the millions of other homes in Nairobi that were at that moment preparing meals whose primary ingredient was water. This set me thinking – how much water does Nairobi, Kenya’s huge capital, consume in a day? Is this water being depleted or replenished wherever it comes from? Is my own water consumption sustainable or extravagant?
‘I hope you are thinking about me,’ Mulhat said as she served chunks of fried meat on two brand new white plates that I had bought the previous week thanks to her prodding. She felt that my plates belonged to the National Museum of Kenya and that it was time for a new generation of plates. And cups.
‘I am thinking about water,’ I answered as I reached for a glass of water.
Even as I drank the clean, potable water in the glass, my mind crawled back to a report that I had read earlier that morning entitled, ‘Securing Water, Sustainable Growth.’ Published by the University of Oxford in 2015 and written by an International Task Force, the report disclosed that the total cost of water insecurity to the global economy was US$500 billion annually. In light of this, the water that Mulhat had just used to cook ugali; the water that I had just drank from my ageing glass; the water that made food, farming and industry across Kenya and elsewhere in the world possible, was costing our world US$500 per year by its insufficiency. In other words, lack of water was severely denting the global economy.
Further compounding water scarcity is the fact that for millions of people, even the available water is unfit for their consumption. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation revealed in a report that ‘at least 1.8 billion people world-wide are estimated to drink water that is faecally contaminated.’ For these millions of fellow human beings, water is not life because the water they consume can and does lead to death.
Even as millions of people continue to be weighed down by the burden of water scarcity or contaminated water, millions others consume it in unsustainable and extravagant fashion.
As I enjoyed every bite of my dinner, I found myself wondering if I was in this category of people whose water footprints are all over the place.
‘You are an absolute master in cooking sukuma wiki,’ Mulhat told me as she re-filled her white plate with Kenya’s favourite vegetable.
Apart from feeding forty million Kenyans, sukuma wiki and agriculture as a whole plays a fundamental role in Africa’s economy by providing six out of every ten jobs on the continent. Because it is heavily dependent on water, Agriculture gulps down 70 percent of all water consumption in the world every year. That’s huge. Without that water being available, Mulhat wouldn’t be able to enjoy my world-famous sukuma wiki.
The beef chunks on my white plate also had their own water footprint. The half a kilo that Mulhat had so deliciously fried in black pepper and garlic had taken 6,800 litres of water to reach my white plate. This number may seem exaggerated but it takes into account the water needed to grow the grass and food that nurture the cow in its short life before it ends up in a slaughterhouse, a butcher, a newspaper wrapping and eventually my white plate.
Since she doesn’t appreciate the ageless splendour of ugali, Mulhat arose from the sofa and sashayed to the kitchen to fetch a few slices of bread. She made a beef sandwich and insisted that I take a bite. The loaf of bread from which she had fished a few slices had required about 908 litres of water to produce.
The astounding water footprints don’t end there. That small bag of French fries that does a lot to satisfy your hunger needs 45 litres of water before you can hold it in grateful hands. The soda that you will most likely drink alongside the chips needs 6,800 litres of water before it can end up in your warm hands.
Water is indeed life. We mostly seem to notice this when it quenches our thirst from a glass. But for every bite of food that we take there are litres of water that were used for that food to reach our hands. Given the fact that most of the food consumed in the United States is processed, the average American family consumes about 2,100 litres of water per day. This is more than one hundred times the 19 litres that an average African family uses per day!
One of the unfortunate reasons why water consumption in Africa is considerably low is that about three quarters of households in sub-Saharan Africa fetch water from a source away from their home. Every effort must be taken to take the water to these households. In the same vein, Americans should drastically reduce their water wastage especially in their diets. It is not enough for them to conserve the water coming from their taps. They need to eat food that doesn't deplete water due to the sheer volume of water needed to produce and process it.
My white plate was finally empty. My stomach was full. I reached for the glass of water beside the plate but it was empty.
Water is a finite resource.