About Stephen

I'm an independent journalist covering environmental issues internationally. I'm also a science and environment correspondent for the Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) bureaus in Rome/NYC/Montevideo/Delhi/Johannesburg/Berlin/London Founder - Community Supported Environmental Journalism project Associate - Media & Democracy Group - media training/help for developing countries

What’s Behind the Coming Water Crisis?

arjen quoteWater crisis are the biggest global risk we face between now and 2025 according to World Economic Forum.

Water scarcity isn’t just about water to drink and grow food but water to produce energy, to provide materials for housing, water for clothes, paper, cars, electronics and everything else.

When I talk about how we need water to make anything in schools, I ask the kids to use their water vision to find something that doesn’t need water to make. No one has succeeded yet.

When it comes to water scarcity the ‘rhino in the room’ is the ocean-sized consumption of hidden or virtual water consumed to grow food and make stuff.

On average North Americans have a water footprint of 8000 litres of water per person per day. Carrying that amount water would be like hauling 5 or 6 cars every day.

Of this 8000 litres (2,000 gallons), only 300 to 400 l of this is comes out of our taps for drinking, washing, cooking or flushing. The rest — the 7500 l is hidden in for the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the things we buy.
water-footprint-slide-002sm

 

This hidden water is also called virtual water. It is the water consumed to grow things or make stuff. By consumed I mean that 7500 we consume each day is water that can’t be used for anything else. This is water that evaporated, remains polluted or cannot be reused in a reasonable time frame.

— Excerpt from 2016 presentation based on the award-winning book Your Water Footprint by Stephen Leahy.

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How Shopping at Thrift Stores Saves Water – YWF’s Water-Saving Tips of the Week

jeans better

Infographic from Your Water Footprint

History in Your Jeans

One way or another your jeans came from the Indus Valley in Pakistan and northeast India. The Indus is a huge valley and river system that drains part of the Himalayan Mountains and is the birthplace of cotton. River and groundwater are used to irrigate rows of cotton plants.

The jeans you’re wearing contain about 800 grams (28 ounces) of cotton, and it took a whopping  15,000 liters (3,960 gallons) of water to grow that much cotton in this dry part of the world. Most of the water evaporated or was used by the cotton plants, and some ended up as wastewater or gray water. That raw cotton was shipped to an urban center or to another country such as Bangladesh, the biggest exporter of textiles. In the factory the raw cotton is washed, dyed and then washed again.

If you think about it, putting on our clothing is like wearing some of the water, soil and sun of faraway places such as the Indus Valley in Pakistan, and the labor of the hard-working hands in the cotton mills of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

How to save thousands of litres (gallons) of water

  • Shop at Thrift Stores  -save  2,900 liters (766 gallons) by just buying a previously-loved T-shirt!
  • Shop Organic – cotton grown without the use of insecticides and chemical fertilizers, and thus it has a smaller water footprint because it produces little water pollution.
  • Buy Local – U.S. cotton has a water footprint of 8,100 liters (2,140 gallons) per kilogram, much less than other countries

Your Water Footprint

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place NYC Green Book Festival

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our daily water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal). This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

YWF’s Water-Saving Tip of the Week: Reduce Food Waste

Cut your family’s water consumption by 475,000 litres (125,000 gal) a year

Forty percent of the food produced in the United States never gets eaten - NRDC

When food is wasted the enormous amounts of water needed to grow and process this food is also wasted. It takes:

  • 80 litres (21 gal) to grow a single orange
  • 125 litres (33 gal) for an apple
  • 196 litres (52 gal) for an egg
  • 1,387 litres (366 gal) for a stick of butter…

Here’s how to cut food waste …and your food bill  $1000 to 2000:

  • Understand labels – “Best Before,” “Use By” and “Best By” dates have nothing to do with health or food safety.  Manufacturers simply decide how long their products will remain at peak quality.
  • Go easy on impulse and bulk food purchases. It’s easier to curb waste by buying more often instead of purchasing massive cartloads that are hard to keep track of.
  • Preserve food by freezing instead of leaving it in the fridge to spoil, or prepare smaller portions
  • When eating out, share meals—the average portion has already been supersized.

Food waste is making climate change worse as well.

Your Water Footprint

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place NYC Green Book Festival

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our daily water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal). This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

YWF’s Water-Saving Tips of the Week: Drive Less

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To Save Water, Drive Less

It takes an average of 3 liters (0.8 gallon) of water to make one liter (about 1 quart) of gasoline. Unconventional oil such as that from Canada’s tar sands needs up to 55 liters (14.5 gallons) of water to produce that single liter of gasoline.

If your gas contains 10% ethanol, filling up your car’s 60-liter (16-gallon) gas tank requires the consumption of a whopping 10,860 liters (2,869 gallons). That’s enough water to fill an above-ground swimming pool 3.7 meters (12 feet) in diameter.

It takes 1,780 liters (470 gallons) of water to grow and process the corn to produce one litre of ethanol.

 

About Your Daily Water Footprint of 8000 l (2100 gal) YWF graphic -YWF electricity

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal) of water each day. This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits.


Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place NYC Green Book Festival

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

YWF’s Water-Saving Tips of the Week

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 3.19.26 PM

Infographic from Your Water Footprint

Lawns, Gardens and Cars 

Outdoor water use for gardens, washing cars and watering lawns can account for at least half, and often far more, of our daily direct consumption of water. We could easily reduce our indoor and outdoor water use by 70%. 

  • Use efficient watering systems for vegetable gardens, flowerbeds and lawns such as soaker hoses or a simple drip irrigation system
  • Apply a layer of mulch around trees and plants to slow evaporation of moisture while discouraging weed growth
  • For lawns let the grass grow taller to about 8–10 centimeters (3–4 inches) and add organic matter to improve water retention.
  • During dry spells you can stop watering your lawn, let it turn brown and go dormant. It will green up with the next decent rain
  • Sweep driveways and sidewalks clean instead of hosing them down
  • Clean the car first, using a pail of soapy water. Use the hose only for rinsing—this simple practice can save as much as 570 liters (150 gallons)

About Your Daily Water Footprint of 8000 l (2100 gal) YWF graphic -YWF electricity

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal) of water each day. This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits.


Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place NYC Green Book Festival

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

Interviews/Articles About YOUR WATER FOOTPRINT

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 2.04.55 PM

The Surprising Water Footprints of 15 Common Things  — mental_floss


“Our Real and Virtual Water Footprint: A Green Interview with Stephen Leahy”
— DVD, 63 minutes – Films Media Group

Your Water Footprint: An Interview with Author Stephen Leahy — eco-centric

What’s the deal with water footprints?” Interview on Sierra Club Radio

Radio Ecoshock interview (mp3)

How to save 900,000 litres of water at the dinner table” — Yahoo news

 Treehugger Interview: “Why care about your water footprint?” 

Your Water Footprint relies on a smart combination of graphics and text in its depiction of how virtual water is used in the economy” –Rabble.ca

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 3.57.43 PM

 

 

YWF’s Water-Saving Tips of the Week

 

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In the Kitchen

Between 30 and 40% of all food is wasted. That means the enormous amounts of water needed to grow and process this food is also wasted.

Here’s how to cut food waste …and your food bill by over $2000:

  • Understand labels – “Best Before,” “Use By” and “Best By” dates have nothing to do with health or food safety.  Manufacturers simply decide how long their products will remain at peak quality.
  • Go easy on impulse and bulk food purchases. It’s easier to curb waste by buying more often instead of purchasing massive cartloads that are hard to keep track of.
  • Preserve food by freezing instead of leaving it in the fridge to spoil, or prepare smaller portions
  • When eating out, share meals—the average portion has already been supersized.

Food waste is making climate change worse as well.

About Your Daily Water Footprint of 8000 l (2100 gal) YWF graphic -YWF electricity

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal) of water each day. This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits.


Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place NYC Green Book Festival

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

YWF’s Water-Saving Tips of the Week

In the Bathroom

  • Check for toilet leaks by adding food coloring to the tank.  If the toilet is leaking, color will appear in the bowl within 30 minutes. (Flush as soon as test is done, since the food coloring may stain.) Check for worn-out, corroded or bent parts. Most replacement parts are inexpensive, readily available and easily installed.

In the Mall

  • Consider secondhand clothing.  It takes a whopping 2,900 liters (766 gallons) to make a plain cotton shirt! You can achieve big reductions in your water footprint by buying clothes secondhand or by wearing polyester, which requires much less water
    to produce.

About Your Daily Water Footprint of 8000 l (2100 gal) YWF graphic -YWF electricity

We don’t realize our societies run on water not oil. There is no electricity or gasoline without water. Nothing can be manufactured without water.  The critically-acclaimed book Your Water Footprint (YWF), uses info graphics to reveal the enormous quantities of water that are used to make the clothes we wear, the electronic devices we use and the food we eat.

On average our water footprint amounts to 8,000 litres (2100 gal) of water each day. This is the net amount, water that can’t be reused.

Water-wise choices is all about smart substitutions and changes in habits.

 

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Product

Winner, Best Science Book in Canada; First Place Green Book Festival, NYC

 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback   Order today

 (Now available on Kindle)

Book Critics Love “Your Water Footprint” – Winner, Best Science Book

YWF smartphone

“…a brilliant and shocking exposé on
precisely how much water we use…”
 — Publishers Weekly

“This book is unique in its handling of a complex topic…the content is timely, important, and fascinating” — Library Journal

…exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page info graphics”  — Booklist,  starred review

“Leahy, an award-winning Ontario environmental journalist… makes it clear that the most innocent-seeming actions and products are far from water-neutral. — Toronto Star

“Leahy drops a tsunami of sobering facts and infographics on the heads of readers who take what comes out of their faucets for granted.” — Kirkus Reviews

Journalist Stephen Leahy’s new book about water footprints is a great introduction to the mysterious world of virtual water — EcoCentric

“… answers on our water consumption pour forth in this entertaining and extremely well illustrated book…” — Harvest H20

“Readers will find the information, which is presented in an infographiclike style, easy to understand and to act upon. While the introduction and conclusion expertly unpack the complex issue of water use, the images and large text in the body of the book seem to be geared toward younger readers. However, this book is unique in its handling of a complex topic and is unlike other texts on the subject — C Library Journal

For kids and classrooms too!

“Leahy’s straightforward, teen-friendly explanations and clever, compelling visuals constitute an ideal introduction to the urgent facts about water.”  —Booklist Review

“With exceptionally clear and informative prose and an abundance of well-designed infographics, this book presents the shocking facts about our water usage…. Leahy helps readers understand the nature of the problem by highlighting what is important to know about our global, national, and local water consumption and why… — School Library Journal

“Stephen Leahy’s visual book, full of facts, figures and pictures helps the reader understand just how much water we use every day in ways we often don’t realize.  This fact-packed book would be a welcome addition to any educator’s water resource library and is most suitable for students in grades 4 and up.  — Stacey Widenhofer Green Teacher 2015-06-23

“… the skillfully depicted infographics and mind-boggling facts make Your Water Footprint a must-buy for middle and high school libraries. What sets this book apart is that there is thorough discussion about the world of hidden water, or the water used in the manufacturing industry, including smartphones, clothing, and even the production of household items like televisions.  Common Core Standards are most definitely met in this text, making it a sound book to be used in the classroom, as well as for recreational reading. — Stephanie Wilke VOYA 2015-12-01

“Leahy ha producido un libro de alto valor didáctico, ampliamente ilustrado con imágenes y gráficos”  — Cambio Climatico Bolivia   (Leahy has produced a book of high educational value, amply illustrated with pictures and graphics)

Water Footprint of Beef

Your Water Footprint:

The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

 Order today   160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, only $19.95 Paperback  

 (Also avail in hardcover)

World Water Day: The cost of cotton exports in water-challenged India

Women and children gather water from pumps in India

 More than 100 million people in India do not have access to safe water. Severe water scarcity in India is exacerbated by the cotton industry. Concerns are high, but are businesses, consumers and government doing enough?

Virtual water

Cotton is by no means India’s largest export commodity – petroleum products followed by gems and jewellery follow closely behind. All of these exports require water to produce, and the quantities needed are staggering. Not only does it take water to grow anything, it also takes water to make anything: cars, furniture, books, electronics, buildings, jewellery, toys and even electricity. This water that goes largely unseen is called virtual water.

What’s easy to forget is that virtual water is as real as the water you drink. Producing 1kg of cotton in India consumes 22,500 litres of water, on average, according to research done by the Water Footprint Network. In other words, this 22,500 litres of water cannot be used for anything else because it has either evaporated or is too contaminated for reuse.

By exporting more than 7.5m bales of cotton in 2013, India also exported about 38bn cubic metres of virtual water. Those 38bn cubic metres consumed in production of all that cotton weren’t used for anything else. Yet, this amount of water would more than meet the daily needs of 85% of India’s vast population for a year.

Doing things differently

Cotton doesn’t usually consume this much water. The global average water footprint for 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres. Even with irrigation, US cotton uses just 8,000 litres per kg. The far higher water footprint for India’s cotton is due to inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution — about 50% of all pesticides used (pdf) in the country are in cotton production.

Most of India’s cotton is grown in drier regions and the government subsidises the costs of farmers’ electric pumps, placing no limits on the volumes of groundwater extracted at little or no cost. This has created a widespread pattern of unsustainable water use and strained electrical grids.

Recent reports show that India’s water consumption is far too high. In 54% of the country 40 to 80% of annually available surface water is used. To be sustainable, consumption should be no more than 20% in humid zones and 5% in dry areas, to maintain the ecological function of rivers and wetlands, experts say (pdf).

India’s extensive groundwater resources are also rapidly being depleted, with 58% of wells in the drier north-west India experiencing declining water levels. By 2030 demand will outstrip supply by 50%, according to the World Resources Institute.

“India’s water problems are well-known in the country and pollution is everywhere. Disagreement lies in the solutions,” says Arjen Hoekstra, professor in water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

The new Indian government’s solution to the spectre of growing severe water scarcity is the $168bn (£113bn) National River Linking Project, which will link 30 rivers with 15,000km of canals. This will transfer 137bn cubic metres of water annually from wetter regions to drier ones. However, the country exports far more water than that, in the form of virtual water, in cotton, sugar, cereals, motor vehicles and its many other exports.

Faltering forward

All of these exports could be produced using far less water, says Hoekstra, who pioneered the water footprint concept. “It’s not just improving water efficiency that could dramatically reduce India’s water consumption, it’s growing and producing things in the right place,” he said.

Most of India’s water-rich crops such as cereals and cotton are grown in the dry states of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, which have very high evaporation rates, unlike wet states such as Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. This perverse situation greatly exacerbates India’s water problems and is largely the result of government policies, Hoekstra’s 2009 study (pdf) states.

“There’s a lot of concern about water scarcity, but little interest in changing consumption patterns,” Hoekstra said.

That said, there is growing interest in the Better Cotton Initiative, an industry-led effort using standards to reduce cotton’s water footprint. Organic cotton production also has a lower net water use because it uses no chemicals. Encouragingly, India currently produces two-thirds of the world’s organic cotton. However, this is just 2% of the country’s cotton acreage.

Rather than matching production of goods to the sustainable use of existing water resources, India, like governments around the world, hopes to use engineering to increase the amount of water, said Hoekstra. Instead, India could grow cotton in less arid regions with more efficient irrigation and fewer pesticides to greatly reduce the crop’s impact on water resources.

Stephen Leahy is an international award winning journalist and author of Your Water Footprint, winner of the best science book for 2014.

First published at The Guardian Friday 20 March 2015 .