The Water Dragon Rises

By Fiona Lawrie 8 November, 2012

Fiona Lawrie tells us why Thirst focuses on raising water awareness in China and not in America

The answer lies in China’s growing power and its potential as a future pioneer in environmental issues
Chinese students underestimate their daily water footprint by 50x
Thirst works with students & universities to instill the hidden value of water in China's next generation

“Water spilled is hard to retrieve”, or so goes the ancient Chinese proverb – wisdom from one of the oldest cultures on the planet that has survived over a millennium. Yet the moral behind the proverb, that what’s done cannot be undone, seems to have been lost along the way, especially with regards to water usage. Overlooked, perhaps, in favour of an ideology fuelled by ambiguity between black cats and white cats, the gloriousness of wealth, and the importance of clothes, computers and I-pads. Fewer than 10%1 of Chinese young people considered water scarcity a key environmental issue when asked in January of this year.

This is not to say a lackadaisical approach to water conservation or environmental awareness in China is to blame for the Water Crisis, on the contrary they are statistically 48 per cent2 more aware of it and use between 1273 and 4504 litres less water a day than the average American (depending on whose statistics you believe). So where, you may ask, does the logic lie in starting a campaign to increase water awareness in China and not in North America? The answer lies in China’s growing power and its potential as a future pioneer in environmental issues, however paradoxical that may currently seem to many in the West.

The ‘Invisible’ or ‘Hidden Water’ that contributes so heavily to China’s problems is a concept known of by many in the environmental sphere but by few of those outside who need to. The Carbon footprint you leave when you take a plane is well publicised; yet the ‘invisible water’ you use when you buy a t-shirt is barely thought of (2,700 litres, in case you’re interested, add 11,000 more if you decide to grab a pair of jeans while you’re there5). This water, when used in the making of consumer products is rendered unusable for human consumption for a fixed period of time after, variable depending on the process in which it is used.

Companies may know what they prioritise when it comes to increased profits or reduced water supplies, but Chinese people, statistically, do not. In fact due to the veiled nature of water consumption in products, they are very rarely aware that the two are interlinked and greatly underestimate the amount of water used in everyday items (their estimations of water contained within them were on average 50 times less than the actual figure6). Unlike Co2 emissions, invisible water footprints remain solely in the country in which a product is made, thus it is not the twenty-something consumer using his new laptop and jeans who will face a nationwide water drought, but the twenty something person living in the source country who will face the consequences. Suddenly informing the upcoming generation of a country with one of the highest global production rates of consumer goods of the consequences of production processes, as well as their consumer habits, doesn’t seem such a bad idea.

On paper the process is simple, a younger generation informed of the oblique consequences of water in consumer goods will put pressure on companies in the future. This upward pressure will compel companies to reduce their water consumption in production processes, the movement spreads and water efficiency becomes the norm throughout industry, with consumers choosing water efficient products over others. In the same way that Organic and Fair Trade products have emerged over the past decade and today amount for over five billion dollars’ worth of products, a market for low virtual water products emerges. People can and have dictated what the market produces; there is no reason to think that this process cannot be repeated now.

In reality, raising awareness is often a long and slow process and has to start at a grassroots level: but China is that place, and it has already begun. Through awareness campaigns in schools, universities, online through social media and offline through direct interaction at music festivals, young Chinese people are becoming more and more conscious of the invisible water and its effects. At one event in our Water Dragon Campaign (see photo), 88%7 of participants, once engaged and educated, said they would change their buying habits to favour water-efficient products. By 2013 Thirst aims to have created a five percent rise in awareness amongst of the Water Crisis amongst Chinese youth, amounting to 7 million people8, and with our two water awareness events alone gaining media attention with a readership and following of over a hundred million, it cannot be long before companies start taking note of this growing movement and real change will occur.

Companies are already under pressure from above, with the Chinese Government introducing water usage caps and minimum water reduction targets to be met as soon as 2015, and pressure from below will prove a catalyst in this. The role of NGOs in this process is simply to initiate this environmental awakening; the pressure itself comes from the Chinese Millennials. If human beings were, as one American author once put it, “invented by water as a device for transporting itself from one place to another” then people need to know where it should be going. A paradigm shift in the way Chinese young people choose and regard consumer goods will initiate a global knock on effect, which will be felt by the many producers who need to feel it.

If the value of hidden water is instilled now it will be the next generation of Chinese young people who are pioneers in this particular aspect of environmental awareness. All we hope to do is remind them of their ancient logic as well as a new one; that water spilt is indeed hard to retrieve, but water tainted or locked away in consumer goods harder so.


1Penn Schoen Berland Water Sustainability Research investigation, January 2012
4United Nations Development Program – Human Development Report 2006
5National Geographic / –
6Penn Schoen Berland Water Sustainability Research investigation, January 2012
7Penn Schoen Berland Water Sustainability Research investigation, 2012
8Population of Age 14 – 24 (born in 1988 to 1997) in China is 143.26 million (National Statistics Office, 2008) Based on our research on ‘water knowledge amongst millennials, 10% of Chinese young people know nothing about water scarcity, which equates to more than 14 million people.
21% know a great deal about water scarcity and that equates to 30 million people. We want to increase people’s knowledge of water scarcity issues by 5%. This equates to 7 million people.
Fiona Lawrie
Author: Fiona Lawrie
Australian Fiona Lawrie grew up in Singapore, from whence her love of all things Chinese began. In 2005 Fiona was the recipient of the Australia China Council’s Year in China Program scholarship to study Mandarin at Liaoning University, Shenyang. A BA in Mandarin and International Relations followed, combining her two passions. In 2008 Fiona was selected to participate in the Brightest Young Minds Summit, held in Australia. And in 2007 she was invited to participate in the inaugural Australian young leaders delegation invited to China by Premier Wen Jiabao. Fiona is frequently invited to emcee a variety of business and community events both in Australia and China. Most recently she has presented at TEDx Beijing: Ability of Youth to Make a Sustainable Difference. Currently residing in Beijing, Fiona is the Chief Operating Officer at Thirst.
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