What Is the Water Content
of Things?
by Nancy Hearn, CNC

angus cattle grazingOne pound of beef uses up to 8,500 gallons of water, including feed water.

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The water content of things, including the food we eat and the products we buy, might surprise you.

Since about 30 percent of the world’s population lives in regions that struggle with water shortage, being aware of our individual and collective water usage can effect change.

We need water to grow everything we eat and to produce almost all the products we use every day. The water used comes from rain or snow melt and is added to the food growing or production process of things.

This hidden water is called “virtual water” and, according to Stephen Leahy in Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products,” each of us uses far more virtual water than the ‘regular’ water we can see, feel and taste.”

According to Leahy, the daily water usage for the average American is about 2115 gallons of water a day, which includes the direct amount of water use (drinking, cooking, bathing) as well as the virtual (i.e., hidden) water use.

Estimated Measurements

Unfortunately, it is difficult, for many reasons, to determine highly accurate numbers for the water content of things. 

For example, there are a wide variety of techniques for manufacturing and food growing processes that are used worldwide. 

Thus, the amount of water used can vary greatly depending on how and where the food is grown or the product is produced.

In addition, the water-usage numbers can vary significantly depending on how far you go back in the food-growing chain or production process.  

For example, when it comes to beef, some measurements will only take into consideration the amount of water the cows drink.  But the amount of water required to grow the food that the cows graze on is huge and accounts for over 90 percent of the large footprint for beef production.

Thus, the following are estimates of water content for some common foods and products. 

We are using liters (1 liter = 1.06 quart) as the common measurement for easy comparison. 

Water Content of 10 Common Things

  1. Beef.  One pound of beef uses anywhere from 7,500 to 35,000 liters of water, which includes water for all feed.
  2. Chicken.  One pound of chicken uses 1,750 to 2,800 liters, including all feed water.
  3. Cotton jeans.   It takes about 8,000 liters of water to grow the cotton for and manufacture a pair of jeans.   Two pounds of finished cotton textile uses 11,000 liters. 
  4. Leather shoes.  The cost of water for a pair of leather shoes is 16,600 liters.
  5. Microchip.  The water footprint for making a pound of microchips is about 8,000 liters.
  6. Rice.  The water cost of growing a pound of rice is about 950 to 2,500 liters. 
  7. Eggs.  The water use for producing a 12-carton of eggs requires about 3,500 liters, which includes water for all feed.
  8. Wet dog or cat food.  Producing one pound of wet food for your dog or cat uses over 14,400 liters of water.
  9. Paper.  To make a pound of paper it takes about 1,500 liters of water.
  10. Car tires.  Rubber production for a set of car tires requires about 8,200 liters of water.

Final Thoughts

Each of us can make a difference in reducing the world water shortage by being aware the water content of things and making small changes. 

For example, from a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.

This doesn’t mean that everyone must become vegans, but if many people reduced their consumption of beef, for example, the impact would be significant.

In addition, most of the sustainable movements focus on the three R’s—Reduce, Reuse and Recyle. These terms are equally important in terms of the water footprint of foods and products.

In general, it means to minimize waste (and perhaps buy less stuff!), reuse available resources (consider shopping at second-hand stores more often), and recycle the waste.


Peter Gleick; The Pacific Institute; The World’s Water 2008-2009: Water Content of Things.

Waterfootprint.org: Product Water Footprint

Waterfootprint.org: Water Footprint of Crop and Animal Products: A Comparison

Return from What is the Water Content of Things to World Water Scarcity

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