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.


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.



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)

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 . 


Book Award-winning Environmental Journalist and Author

MUSE talk passport

Stephen will be doing more talks in 2016 about about his prize-winning book Your Water FootprintThe Shocking Facts Behind Our Thirst for Earth’s Most Precious Resource (Best Science Book in Canada).  

Reviewers have called Your Water Footprint: “brilliant and shocking” and “exceptionally lucid”

Stephen is also an expert on the United Nations climate talks and climate science. He is a winner of the prestigious Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for his Climate Change and Environment Reporting.

As a journalist he has written over 2000 articles on  science and environmental topics around the world for National Geographic, the Guardian, New Scientist, IPS, and many more.

Stephen’s 8-minute talk for Walrus TV:  “We don’t realize our entire society runs on water. It doesn’t run on oil”

 To inquire about Stephen speaking at your event please complete the contact form below.

Book Now for 2016!

Selected 2015 Appearances

Moscow, Idaho/Pullman, Washington
2015 Palouse Basin Water Summit – Keynote Speaker

Mailbu, California and Los Angles Area
MUSE talks

Victoria, B.C. Walrus Talks Water

 Toronto  Ribbon at the Lower Don Festival celebrating the PAN AM Games 

Halifax, Nova Scotia Walrus Talks Water


Please fill out the form below – it helps reduce spam. Yes, this really works and I will reply — Stephen.

Best Science Book of the Year: Your Water Footprint

Celebrating the Best in Canadian Science Writing
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Stephen Leahy has won the prestigious Lane Anderson Award for the best science writing in Canada in 2014 for his book Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

In Your Water Footprint (Firefly Books), Stephen Leahy introduces readers to the Virtual Water Concept and to readers’ awareness of how much water is used in our everyday activities. Leahy is an environmental journalist from Uxbridge, Ontario.

The juries based their decision on the relevance of each book’s content to the importance of science in today’s world, as well as the author’s ability to connect the topic to the interests of the general trade reader.

“The Fitzhenry Family Foundation is excited to award two pieces of work that ultimately encourage protection of the earth’s resources and animal welfare,” said Holly Doll.

“It’s important to us that Canadians are encouraged to read about science and the environment at both young reader and adult levels.”


front cover resized1

“…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

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

Firefly Books, 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics only $19.95 Paperback

(Also avail in hardcover and e-book format)

Order today at your local bookstore or online.


Your Water Footprint Author and Speaker

MUSE talk sml

As an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Water Footprint”, winner of Best Science Book for the General Public,  I’ve given dozens of talks and presentations on environmental issues including water, climate, energy, biodiversity and more.

My back story:

In the midst of a successful corporate career I changed direction to pursue my growing interest in writing, science, conservation and the environment. Over the past 20+ years I’ve written more than 2000 articles on science and environmental topics around the world for National Geographic, the Guardian, New Scientist, IPS, and many more.

For some of this work I was fortunate enough to receive the prestigious Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change and Environment Reporting.

%22your water footprint%22 reviewsIn late 2014 my first book was published:  Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts Behind Our Thirst for Earth’s Most Precious Resource.   Reviewers called the book “brilliant and shocking” and “exceptionally lucid”.  And then it won the award for best science book in Canada.

I’ve done presentations for all ages and backgrounds including kindergarten kids and scientists in California, journalists in South Africa, public officials in Spain, general public in Idaho, teachers and business executives in Toronto.

 For more info please use this contact form.

“The Walrus Talks brings Canada’s brightest minds to theatres across the country to talk about the biggest issues facing our country.  Stephen Leahy has been a welcome addition to the series, and a favourite of our audiences. He’s able to make complex issues seem simple without taking anything away from the urgency and importance of his message. This quality makes his presentations guaranteed
– David Leonard, Director of Events, the Walrus Foundation

Book Now for 2017!

Selected Previous Appearances

Canadian Club of Halton Peel — Oakville Conference Centre

Keynote Speaker 2015 Palouse Basin Water Summit – Pullman, Washington

MUSE talks – Calabasas, California

Walrus Talks Water — Victoria, B.C.

 Ribbon at the Lower Don Festival celebrating the PAN AM Games   — Toronto

Durham EcoSchool Teachers workshop 

Walrus Talks Water -Halifax, Nova Scotia  

 Urban Watershed Festival  — Toronto

 “Water for Life” – Oshawa, Ontario

H2Awesome — 900 Grade 8 Students – Guelph High Schools

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Photo Credit: GuelphToday.com

 To contact me please use this contact form.

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Daily Life Takes HOW Much Water?

Posted by Brian Clark Howard of National Geographic in Water Currents on April 9, 2015

YWF graphic -pizza

Did you know it takes 240 gallons of water to make a cell phone? Or 52 gallons to make an egg?

The concept of such “hidden water” may seem unfamiliar to some, but it’s an important part of our impact on the planet, argues author Stephen Leahy in the recent book Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products.

Leahy, who has written for National Geographic, spoke with Water Currents about how water is required for almost everything we do, and how we can reduce that impact.

What inspired you to write a book on hidden water?

When I was in Australia doing a piece on climate change and invasive species for National Geographic I took an extra week of vacation and hung out with some Aborigines in a remote part of Queensland. To get water I had to walk 200 yards to a stream. It was heavy to haul the water and when it got dark it felt risky because they have nasty snakes and spiders there. That made me appreciate water more.

Then I went to a sacred waterfall, where shamans are initiated. In one of the final stages a candidate grabs the biggest rock they can lift and jumps into the pool, where they lay down until they drown. If the spirit finds them worthy they are brought back alive and become an official shaman. It had been over 20 years since someone managed that, but hearing about it made me realize that these folks take water really seriously.

And then when I got home from that trip I saw an email from the publisher, Firefly, asking if I wanted to write a book about hidden water. I thought it sounded like a really interesting approach to an important subject.

What aspect of hidden water most surprised you?

I was surprised by just how much water it takes to make everything. We don’t really have any material things without water, from food to housing, furniture, electricity, transportation, and so much more.

I tried hard to find something that doesn’t need any water and I couldn’t, which showed how dependent we are on it. And yet we pay little attention to it. We have a lot of stubstites for oil, but we don’t have any water substitutes.

In your book you note that it takes eight bathtubs of water for a typical breakfast. So what should people do if they want to reduce that?

The easiest way to reduce the amount of water you consume is to cut back on meat, since raising meat is really water intensive. Beyond that, beef is much more water intensive than chicken, so you can substitute one for the other.

Next, if you can buy local food it’s easier to find out about how it was produced, including if the water used was managed sustainably. That’s important because it’s not just the amount of water that’s important, it’s also how it is managed. For example, is excess water returned to the local system?

Farming many water-intensive foods in a desert or semi-desert is not sustainable. California, for example, has a huge water deficit.

It’s also true that about 40% of all food in North America is wasted, which means a huge amount of water is wasted. So reducing food waste can really reduce the amount of water you are using, way more than a low-flow shower head, which is still important.

Meat-based diet VS VegetarianWhat else can people do to save water?

A lot of it is going back to the basics on reducing and reusing stuff. Reduce the number of times you swap our your cell phone for the latest model and you’ll save 240 gallons of water. Find a home for your phone if you really have to have a new one instead of tossing it in the landfill. Consumption of material goods means consumption of water.

Flat screen TVs are also very water intensive, requiring tens of thousands of gallons for each one. So ask yourself if you really need it. Use thrift stores to get your clothes, which are fortunately cool again.


In your book you write that “peak water” is already here and yet few people know it. Can you explain what that means?

The amount of freshwater that’s available is limited, it’s a tiny fraction of all the water there is on the planet. But our demand is soaring. We’re growing in numbers and in our consumption of things, and each and everything requires water, and lots of it.

The Ogallala Aquifer [in the Great Plains] is declining about nine feet a year and within 20 years or so it’s going to be empty. It’s the same problem in California. Three in five people in the world will be experiencing water scarcity by 2025. At Davos world leaders recently said that the biggest challenge humanity faces in the next 10 years is water scarcity.

We’ve covered hidden water at National Geographic before (and in our water footprint calculator) and people often tell us they struggle to understand the concept. They think of water as what comes out of their tap. Do you think it’s a hard message to get across?

It’s a hard message for adults but apparently not so hard for kids, who seem to grasp it right away. Our new book has a lot of infographics that try to break it down to help people understand it. We try to show, for example, that a car is like a giant bag of water, with another bag of water on top of that for fuel. Clothes are bags of water, so are books.

There also seems to be a widening gap between many people around the world who don’t have clean water and those of us who seem to be using more and more. How can this gap be bridged?

Ginormous rivers of virtual water are flowing from one country to another. A lot of it isn’t very smart.

For example, Egypt is a big exporter of oranges, mostly to Europe. But it’s a desert country. It takes roughly 20 gallons of water for each orange, but at the same time they don’t have enough water to grow the food they need. So they end up importing cheap food from other countries.

Australia is the biggest virtual exporter of water, through mining and agricultural products, but it’s also the driest continent, so that doesn’t make sense.

virtual water trade wfn smlSo what can people do?

Don’t use more water than you have. If you can grow crops that can be rain fed, that don’t require irrigation, that’s great. If it requires adding water drip irrigation is far more efficient than flood irrigation.

Stop and think before you do something if you really need it or if there is another way to get the service. Can you get those jeans at a thrift store? Can you take a train instead of drive [which saves on the amount of water needed for fuels]? Can you get your cell phone used?

Your Water Footprint Book Review in Portuguese with Eye-popping Graphics

A água que não vemos, mas consumimos na mesma

15/1/2015, 20:45

E se lhe dissessem que para fabricar uma “motherboard” são usados mais de quatro mil litros de água ultrapura e cerca de 910 litros de água para fabricar um smarthphone?

Dois terços do planeta Terra são água

Quando abrimos a torneira em casa e vemos a água correr facilmente nos esquecemos que 30% da população mundial vive com escassez de água, e que em África ou na Ásia há pessoas que percorrem mais de seis quilómetros para encontrar água potável. Com um alerta de que em 2025 três em cada cinco pessoas podem viver com falta de água, o livro “Your WaterFootprint” (o impacto que cada um de nós tem no planeta em relação à água) pretende mostrar a quantidade que se consome diariamente na América do Norte, e não apenas aquela que se vê.

“Um norte-americano consome em média 378 litros [de água] por dia para tomar banho, lavagens [de roupa, ou loiça, por exemplo], cozinhar e limpar”, refere o livro. Mas a isso pode juntar 2.400 litros de água gastos para produzir o cheeseburgerque comeu ao almoço e 110 litros para produzir a cerveja (de 33 centilitros) que o acompanhou. Plantar, criar, transformar, transportar, embalar, também consome este bem vital. “Espero que as pessoas entendam o quão importante é a ‘água escondida’”, diz ao Observador Stephen Leahy, autor do livro e jornalista de ambiente.


O desafio foi-lhe lançado pela editora Firefly Books. Quando fez uma pequena pesquisa sobre o tema apercebeu-se que não há nada que façamos no nosso dia-a-dia que não inclua (ou tenha incluído) gastos de água. “Queria ajudar as pessoas a perceber que apesar de não vermos a água usada para fazer as coisas é tão real e importante como a água que bebemos.” Durante as pesquisas descobriu que o termo “water footprint” (“pégada de água”) tinha sido criado há já 20 anos por Arjen Hoekstra, professor em Gestão de Água na Universidade de Twente, na Holanda.

O maior consumidor de água é a produção de alimentos, em particular a produção animal, um dos assuntos abordados nodocumentário Cowspiracy. O autor diz que os números de consumo de água usados no documentário são muito semelhantes àqueles a que chegou no livro, mas admite que existem várias fórmulas diferentes e teve de procurar a fonte mais fidedigna. No livro ressalva que muitos dos valores estão adaptados à realidade norte-americana (Canadá, de onde é natural, e Estados Unidos) e explica o que entende por consumo de água – “a água usada que não é devolvida numa localização acessível para ser reutilizada”, ou seja, que fica poluída ou que evaporando vai cair num local distante.


“A Terra tem a mesma quantidade de água doce que tinha no tempo dos dinossauros”, lê-se no livro. “A diferença é que a maior parte da nossa água doce está congelada nas calotes polares ou na Gronelândia. A outra diferença é que encontrámos inúmeras utilizações para a água com as quais os dinossauros nunca sonharam.”

Apesar de muitos dos valores de consumo estarem adaptados à realidade norte-americana o problema da escassez de água é mundial – se toda a água do mundo coubesse num garrafão de cinco litros, a quantidade de água potável disponível seria menos que uma colher de chá -, logo cabe a cada um fazer a sua parte na poupança da água.


Existem regras básicas como tomar duches mais rápidos, não lavar os dentes, os legumes, a loiça, o carro ou fazer a barba com água corrente (de torneira aberta), mas o livro, disponível na Amazon, deixa muitas outras sugestões, das quais recuperamos algumas:

  • Se tiver um autoclismo antigo que gasta cerca de 20 litros troque-o por um que gaste cinco vezes menos.
  • Puxe o autoclismo só quando necessário e não só porque tem um cabelo na parede do vaso sanitário. Lembre-se que mesmo os pequenos lixos, como a mosca que acabou de matar, devem ir para o caixote e não para a sanita.
  • Garanta que nenhuma torneira da casa está a pingar – um pingo por segundo pode significar 10 mil litros gastos por ano – e que o autoclismo não tem nenhuma fuga.
  • Não precisa de passar a loiça por água antes de a pôr na máquina de lavar e use a máquina apenas quando estiver cheia.
  • Se não tiver uma máquina de lavar roupa que adapte a quantidade de água à quantidade de roupa, use-a apenas quando estiver cheia.
  • Para poupar água no jardim mantenha plantas que exijam pouca água, recolha água da chuva para regar, deixe a relva com 10 centímetros para reter melhor a água ou cubra o solo expostos com desperdícios vegetais para reduzir as perdas de água por evaporação.
  • Beba água da torneira. Produzir garrafas de plástico e transportá-las até ao ponto de venda também consome água.

Sierra Club Radio Asks: What’s the Big Deal About Water Footprints?

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100% Clean Energy, Water Footprints and Recycled Batteries

Starts at 11:55:  Stephen Leahy, author of Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products 

Original link


“…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

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

October 2014 Firefly Books, 160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics only $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover)