The price of water

How much would you pay for 1,000 litres of water? A dollar? Does that sound reasonable? Robert Joseph looks at the cost of turning water into wine.

Robert Joseph

How about if I sweetened the deal by saying the water can be shipped wherever you want it really cheaply because I have a magical way of squeezing it into standard wine bottles?

The only problem, assuming that it’s water you actually want, is that my method of compression ends up with the liquid being alcoholic and either pale yellow, pink or red in colour. In fact, most people would recognise it as wine.  

You might imagine that this miraculous ability to turn water into wine requires divine powers, but actually all that’s needed is a vineyard and a decent irrigation system.

Then, it’s simple maths. To produce one litre of wine requires at least 500 litres of water in irrigation and processing. This is a very conservative estimate. Professor Arjen Hoekstra of the Twente Water Centre in Holland quotes a global average of 960l, while a detailed 2015 Italian study by Bonamente, Scrucca, Asdrubali, Cotana and Presciutti at the University of Perugia comes up with a figure of 843l, or 632l per bottle.

As the media has increasingly focused its attention on climate change, the water footprint of our industries has not attracted nearly as much attention as the carbon footprint. But academics globally are busily calculating the environmental costs of everything we consume, from tea (30l per cup), to beef (almost 4,000l for a 250g steak). 

Obviously, the implications of the water footprint depend on the availability of water in the region where the product is produced. Some places naturally have more than others, which is why the viability of growing rice (3,400l per kg) and cotton (2,700l for a t-shirt) in the dry continent of Australia is increasingly questioned. 

Even where water is normally abundant, climate change is living up to its name by reducing the predictability of weather conditions. Agriculture has always been cyclical, but as Francois Viljoen, viticultural expert at South Africa’s Vinpro says, the increased frequency of drought conditions is taking what may be a long-term toll on the vines. Premium producers who rely on little, or no irrigation (15% of South Africa’s vineyards), suffer of course, but far less than grape growers who are totally reliant on irrigation to produce high volumes of cheap wine.

Grape growers are getting better at managing water resources; researchers are working on less thirsty clones and winemakers are more likely to recycle the water they use for processing, a small fraction of the total requirement; however, when looking at 25c bulk wine, this is all like applying a Band-aid to a gaping wound.

Countries and regions that are short of water simply cannot continue to export it in the form of cheap wine. Tough decisions will be have to be made: golf courses that bring in significant amounts of tourist 
revenue will continue to be watered while vines are allowed to die of thirst. We are beginning to understand the value of data and we will learn the true cost of water.

And, being ingenious, human beings will come up with other solutions. When I recently wrote about stem cell beef and attempts to produce synthetic wine, I was met by a chorus of dismay and disbelief from traditionalists. But if a satisfactory, low-priced, man-made burger or replicated Pinot Grigio can be produced without the need for vast amounts of water, I’m going to bet that they will prove to be very successful. 

 

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