What's your water footprint?

Water, water everywhere, but too much is being exploited

Oh dear, not another reason to worry about the planet! There's already climate change, pollution, industrial agricultural practices and water and energy profligacy, to name just a few.

Now, veteran journalist, Green candidate for Parliament and first time author Stephen Leahy, in his recently published book, Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products, has come up with a new reason to worry about the planet: the worsening shortages of fresh water that are overexploited for industrial purposes.

"Our entire way of life is based on water; it is not based on oil as government tells us," says Leahy, who is based in Uxbridge, just east of Toronto.

Leahy is referring specifically to "virtual water," which involves non-recyclable fresh water that is consumed during the production of food, energy and manufactured goods, but is invisible to the consumer.

It is here that Leahy has concerns with regards to exponential growth. He argues that the tripling of fresh water usage in the past 50 years is not sustainable because this is a finite and irreplaceable resource.

At the same time, he reports, there is insufficient fresh water in the world for human sustenance. Here, the resource is more likely to be recycled and re-used.

Nevertheless, about 1.2 billion people on the Earth live in areas with chronic water scarcity; while another two billion are affected by shortages every year. By 2025, three in five people may be living with water shortages.

To deliver this message, Your Water Footprint relies on a smart combination of graphics and text in its depiction of how virtual water is used in the economy.

It takes, for instance, more than 7,600 litres or 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans; 2,460 litres or 650 gallons for a T-shirt; and 8,000 litres or 2,113 gallons for a single pair of leather shoes.

He estimates that the clothes in his closet are the result of hundreds of thousands of litres of water applied during the production process.

Since many of our clothes in North America are imported, we are literally "sucking" up water from the developing countries in the making of inexpensive garments for the affluent north, his book reports.

Furthermore, to produce one kilogram of beef, one needs 15,400 litres or 4,068 gallons of water, which is almost 1.5 times the volume of a concrete mixer truck. Animals, explains Leahy "have a much larger water footprint than crops," in food production.

Also, a single smart phone uses 910 litres or 240 gallons of water in the manufacturing process.

Leahy says that the direct water usage by the average American (showers, toilet, washing, cooking and drinking) is around 378 litres or 100 gallons. In contrast, the virtual water used in what Americans eat, wear and use during the day averages 7,500 litres or 1,980 gallons.

"Humanity faces difficult choices about how best to use the limited amount of water that we have. This has become even more challenging with growing demands on water from a rising population that's expected to add a billion more people by 2030," the author says.

This is Leahy's first book, having spent the past 20 years in daily reporting for a range of news outlets including the New Scientist, Earth Island Journal, the Toronto Star, Sunday Times, The Guardian, Aljazeera English and Vice. Until recently he was the science and environment correspondent for the Rome based non-profit news agency, Inter Press Service.

A veritable globe trotter, he has attended and covered major international scientific conferences, particularly in the area of climate change. His travelling costs have been assisted in part through crowd sourcing efforts online.

In order get his head around the matter of virtual water, Leahy says he had to get on top of related trends in climate, food and energy because all these issues are interrelated.

Human beings -- and that includes environmental experts like himself -- tend to get stuck in silos of specialized knowledge and lose sense of the bigger picture, he explains. "It is quite a shift to integrate holistically," says Leahy.

As someone who has from his reporting became quite familiar with the environmental challenges facing the planet, the author still found the research on virtual water a bit of an eye opener. "I knew that [humans] used a lot of water, but I didn't realize it was that much."

Leahy says his book "would not have been possible," without the assistance of the University of Twente in the Netherlands which has its own academic department on water resources and where the data and analysis is freely available for researchers.

Furthermore, he observes, there is less awareness of the water footprint issue in comparison to the better publicized climate change. "Very few governments have come to grips with virtual water," notes Leahy.

One has to assume Leahy is including Canada's government here because he has been busy talking about this issue and Your Water Footprint with teachers and students at schools.

Leahy also says he's caught the research and writing bug and wants to write another book.

Initially, he found the first book hard to write because his journalism career has consisted of jumping from one subject to another all the time.

"Once I got into it and I had to really force myself to get into it, then I enjoyed being able to explore a subject in depth. I really had to think about how to present the information, make it accessible for people," he notes.

Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton based freelance writer who can be reached at paulweinberg@bell.net.

 

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