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Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 10.51.45 PMWater is far more valuable and useful than oil

The water footprint of a half-litre bottle of water is 5.5 litres – yet well over a billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity

Motorbike rider with boy young passenger carrying huge number of plastic water storage pots
 Plastic pots, used to store water, being transported in Hyderabad, India. Photograph: Mahesh Kumar/AP

Even after 20 years of covering environmental issues in two dozen countries I had no idea of the incredible amounts of water needed to grow food or make things. Now, after two years working on my book Your Water Footprint: the shocking facts about how much water we use to make everyday products, I’m still amazed that the t-shirt I’m wearing needed 3,000 litres to grow and process the cotton; or that 140 litres went into my morning cup of coffee. The rest of my breakfast swallowed 1,012 litres: small orange juice (200 litres); two slices of toast (112 litres); two strips of bacon (300 litres); and two eggs (400 litres).

Water more valuable and useful than oil

Researching all this I soon realised that we’re surrounded by a hidden world of water. Litres and litres of it are consumed by everything we eat, and everything we use and buy. Cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewellery, toys and even electricity would not exist without water. It’s no exaggeration to say that water is far more valuable and useful than oil.

A water footprint adds up the amount of water consumed to make, grow or produce something. I use the term consumed to make it clear that this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Often water can be cleaned or reused so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book. The water footprint of 500ml of bottled water is 5.5 litres: 0.5 for the water in the bottle and another five contaminated in the process of making the plastic bottle from oil. The five litres consumed in making the bottle are as real water as the 500ml you might drink but hardly anyone in business or government accounts for it.

The incredible amounts of water documented in Your Water Footprint are based primarily on research done at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where Arjen Hoekstra originated the concept of water footprints. The amount consumed to make something varies enormously depending on where the raw materials come from and how they are processed. Wheat grown in dry desert air of Morocco needs a lot more water than wheat grown in soggy Britain. For simplicity, the amounts in the book are global averages.

One of the biggest surprises was learning how small direct use of water for drinking, cooking and showering is by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) 400 litres is not a trivial amount; however, the virtual water that’s in the things we eat, wear and use each day averages 7,500 litres in North America, resulting in a daily water footprint of almost 8,000 litres. That’s more than twice the size of the global average. Think of running shoes side by side: the global shoe is a size 8; the North American a size 18. By contrast, the average water footprint of an individual living in China or India is size 6.

Peak water is here

Water scarcity is a reality in much of the world. About 1.2 billion people live in areas with chronic scarcity, while 2 billion are affected by shortages every year. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is an increasing reality for the US and Canada. Water experts estimate that by 2025 three in five people may be living with water shortages.

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great water savers, the water footprint concept can lead to even bigger reductions in water consumption. For example green fuels may not be so green from a water consumption perspective. Biodiesel made from soybeans has an enormous water footprint, averaging more than 11,000 litres per litre of biodiesel. And this doesn’t include the large amounts of water needed for processing. Why so much water? Green plants aren’t “energy-dense,” so it takes a lot of soy to make the fuel.

Beef also has a big footprint, over 11,000 litres for a kilo. If a family of four served chicken instead of beef they’d reduce their water use by an astonishing 900,000 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic size pool to a depth of two feet. If this same family of opted for Meatless Mondays, they’d save another 400,000 litres. Now they could fill that pool halfway.

We can do nearly everything using less water. It’s all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial, but we can’t make the right choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.

Stephen Leahy is an environmental journalist based in Ontario, Canada

Link to Guardian article

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

only  $19.95  large format paperback 

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

Order today

In US:  AmazonPowell’s Books; Barnes&NobleIndiebound

Canada:  Chapters-Indigo Signed copies avail at Blue Heron Books – Stephen’s home town bookstore; In Ottawa visit the legendary Octopus Books

UK:  WH SmithAmazonWaterstones

Australia: Angus & RobertsonBooktopia

New Zealand: Mighty Ape

“Exceptionally lucid narration” — Booklist

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Booklist logoIssue: November 1, 2014

American Library Association

***** Starred Review*****

“…exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page info graphics.”

 We know about our carbon footprint. Now environmental journalist Leahy alerts us to an even more daunting reality, our water footprint. There are no alternatives to water, and the supply of freshwater is finite. Obviously, we drink and use water in our daily routines, but we also consume massive quantities in agriculture and manufacturing. More than can be replaced.

Leahy takes a uniquely clear and direct approach to revealing the magnitude of our hidden water profligacy by matching his exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page infographics. We see that a pair of jeans, from cotton field to factory to you, requires 2,000 gallons of water. One measly liter of soybean-based biodiesel fuel requires 11,397 liters, or 3,010 gallons, of water. Page after page of such eye-opening calculations recalibrates our understanding of the invisible role water plays in every aspect of our lives, jarring disclosures that can help us make choices, however modest. For example, the production of one cup of tea requires 9 gallons of water; one cup of coffee, 37 gallons; two pounds of tomatoes, 56.5 gallons; two pounds of beef, 4,068 gallons.

As irresistible as it is alarming, Leahy’s water footprint primer is a catalyst for conservation of our most precious endangered resource.

— Donna Seaman

Young Adult/General Interest: “Leahy’s straightforward, teen-friendly explanations and clever, compelling visuals constitute an ideal introduction to the urgent facts about water.” —Donna Seaman

(A starred review indicates a work judged by a reviewer to be outstanding in its genre)

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

Published Nov 2014  160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, $19.95 Paperback

(Also avail in hardcover)

Order on Amazon

In Canada:  Order on Chapters-Indigo

In UK:  Order on WH Smith

Stephen Leahy

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International Environmental Journalist

Co-Winner of the United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change ReportingSteve headshot

Stephen has been an independent journalist for over 20 years and has reported on environmental issues from dozens of countries. He has been published in many leading publications around the world including National Geographic, New Scientist, The London Sunday Times, The Guardian, Vice Magazine,  Al Jazeera, Maclean’s Magazine, Earth Island Journal, DeSmog Canada, The Toronto Star, Wired News, China Dialogue, Mo Magazine (Europe), TerraGreen (India), and Common Dreams.

Based near Toronto,  he is also the senior science and environment correspondent for the Rome-headquartered Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS), the world’s largest not-for-profit global news agency. IPS articles are published in over 500 newspapers and magazines all over the world reaching an estimated 200 million readers in up to 20 languages. IPS news is also broadcast by over 1000 radio stations, potentially targeting over 150 million listeners.

Stephen also contributes to IPS affiliates in Montevideo, Johannesburg and New Delhi.

Stephen on Walrus TV: “We don’t realize our entire society runs on water. It doesn’t run on oil”

Interview on CTV Halifax morning show

Stephen’s talk: Inside The International Climate Treaty Negotiations 

His journalism also appears on a wide range of news networks including Reuters AlertNet, DeSmog Blog, TerraViva, InfoSud, Rabble.ca, Common Dreams and more.

Prior to journalism, Stephen had a successful career in the private sector. He is currently a Fellow at the International League of Conservation Writers and professional member of the International Federation of JournalistsSociety of Environmental Journalists. A co-winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Price for Climate Change and Environment Reporting.

Hundred’s of Stephen’s articles are freely available on his main website.  These cover topics ranging from climate change to food production to nano tech.

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