My breakfast took 1100 litres (290 gal) of water to make – how much was yours?

meat sample

( Graphic from  ‘Your Water Footprint’) 

I have a confession: I used 1100 litres of water to make my breakfast today. It was nothing special, just a small glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee, two eggs, toast and two pieces of bacon. But it did take 1100 litres of water to grow and process the ingredients. Thats a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub only holds about 80 litres.

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 Im still amazed the T-shirt Im wearing needed a whopping 2500 litres to grow and process the cotton. Or that 140 litres was needed to grow and process the coffee beans to make my morning coffee. Since a litre of water weighs a kilogram, thats 140 kilos of water, imagine having to haul that much in a bucket every morning!

Your Water Footprint wins Lane Anderson award as best Canadian Science book for general public

Water more valuable and useful than oil

Researching all of this I soon realized were literally surrounded by a hidden world of water. Although we cant see it, there is water in everything we eat, everything we use and buy. Almost anything you can think of – cars, furniture, books, dishes, TVs, highways, buildings, jewelry, toys and even electricity would not exist without water.

Its no exaggeration to say water is far more valuable and useful than oil.

Unfortunately, water is often taken for granted and undervalued, resulting widespread misuse and waste. The idea behind my book is to increase awareness of huge quantities of the hidden water our entire way of life depends on. Your Water Footprint uses colourful infographics to illustrate the size of the water footprints of a wide range things from shoes to whiskey. A water footprint is the amount of water consumed’ to make, grow or produce something. I use the word consumed to make it clear this is water that can no longer be used for anything else. Water can often be cleaned or reused, so those amounts of water are not included in the water footprints in the book.

For example, when you drink a half-litre of bottle water youre actually consuming 5.5. litres. Why so much? Making the plastic bottle consumed 5 litres of water.

After poring through many studies on water footprints, I was really surprised to see how tiny my direct use of water for drinking, cooking, showers and so on was by comparison. Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 litres. (FYI: Flushing toilets is the biggest water daily use, not showers.) Now, 400 litres is not a trivial amount of water, and we can all get by using less by employing some water-savings tips.


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However, compared to the hidden water, also known as virtual water, thats in the things we eat, wear and use for a day averages an incredible 7500 litres. That means our daily water footprint is almost 8,000 litres (direct + hidden freshwater use). Carrying all this water would be like trying to haul the weight of four mid-size cars every day.

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 two billion are affected by shortages every year. That’s two in seven people. And as the ongoing drought in California proves, water scarcity is increasing reality for many of us in 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. If a family of four replaced beef with chicken in all their meals, they would reduce their water use an astonishing 900,000 litres a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic-sized pool to a depth of two feet. The reason is the water footprint of beef is four times larger than chicken.

Vegetables have an even smaller water footprint. If the average family liked the idea of “Meatless Mondays,” they’d save 400,000 litres of water a year.

My hope with Your Water Footprint is to give you enough information to make water-wise choices to reduce your water use which will help you save money, be prepared for shortages and ensure our children and grandchildren will have abundant fresh water. This is all about smart substitutions and changes, rather than sacrifice and self-denial.

To do this we need to know how much we are currently using. We can’t make the water-wise choices unless we begin to see and understand the invisible ways in which we rely on water.

Stephen Leahy is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Uxbridge, Ontario, Canada. He is the author ofYour Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products.

(First published Yahoo Canada News – Mon, 8 Sep, 2014)

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

Only $19.95 paperback; 160 pages, 125 unique infographics,

also available as Kindle and in other ebook formats

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

Overweight? Hungry? Blame ‘Hollow Food’

 

wheat harvest sml

Conventional agriculture produces “hollow food”, with low levels of nutrients and vitamins studies show

By Stephen Leahy

TORONTO, Canada, Mar 4, 2006 (Tierramérica)

(Originally published in 2006)

Organic foods protect children from the toxins in pesticides, while foods grown using modern, intensive agricultural techniques contain fewer nutrients and minerals than they did 60 years ago, according to two new scientific studies.

A U.S. research team from Emory University in Atlanta analysed urine samples from children ages three to 11 who ate only organic foods and found that they contained virtually no metabolites of two common pesticides, malathion and chlorpyrifos. However, once the children returned to eating conventionally grown foods, concentrations of these pesticide metabolites quickly climbed as high as 263 parts per billion, says the study published Feb. 21 (2006).

Organic crops are grown without the chemical pesticides and fertilisers that are common in intensive agriculture. There was a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” against the pesticides while consuming organically grown foods, said Chensheng Lu, an assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

These findings, in addition to the results of another study published in Britain earlier this month, have fueled the debate about the benefits of organically grown food as compared to conventional, mass-produced foods, involving academics, food and agro-industry executives and activists in the global arena.

According to the new British analysis of government nutrition data on meat and dairy products from the 1930s and from 2002, the mineral content of milk, cheese and beef declined as much as 70 percent in that period.

“These declines are alarming,” Ian Tokelove, spokesman for The Food Commission that published the results of the study, told Tierramérica.

The Commission is a British non-governmental organisation advocating for healthier, safer food. The research found that parmesan cheese had 70 percent less magnesium and calcium, beef steaks contained 55 percent less iron, chicken had 31 percent less calcium and 69 percent less iron, while milk also showed a large drop in iron along with a 21 percent decline in magnesium.

Copper, an important trace mineral (an essential nutrient that is consumed in tiny quantities), also declined 60 percent in meats and 90 percent in dairy products.

“It seems likely that intensive farming methods are responsible for this,” Tokelove said from his office in London.

Continue reading

Global Land Grabbing by Speculators, Investment banks, Pension funds

Kenya green hills CIAT Neil Palmer sml

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 10, 2012 (IPS)

Land is the missing element at next month’s big U.N. sustainable development summit known as Rio+20, where nations of the world will meet Jun. 20-22 with the goal of setting a new course to ensure the survival and flourishing of humanity.

However, governments are apparently unaware that a reversal of decades of land reform is underway with speculators, investment banks, pension funds and other powerful financial interests taking control of perhaps 200 million hectares of land from poor farmers in Africa, Latin America and Asia in recent years. Speculators and investors know land is the key to three necessities of life: food, water and energy. But neither land nor community land rights are on the summit agenda.

“Rural people are losing control over land and water because of this global land grab,” said Honduran farmer leader Rafael Alegria of the international farmers’ movement La Via Campesina.

Anywhere from 80 to 227 million hectares of rural, often agrarian land have been taken over by private and corporate interests in recent years, according to an April report released by Friends of the Earth International.

Many small land holders are being displaced in Central America and up to 40 percent of Honduran small farmers live in extreme poverty, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation, Alegria told IPS through a translator.

Continue reading

Unseen World of Water and the Water Crisis

world water supply

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 22 2013 (IPS)

How much water does it take to turn on a light? It took 10,000 litres to make your jeans. Another three big bathtubs of water was needed for your two-eggs-toast-coffee breakfast this morning.

We are surrounded by an unseen world of water: furniture, houses, cars, roads, buildings – practically everything we use and make needs water.

“There is no way to generate energy without water,” said Zafar Adeel, co-chair of the UN-Water Task Force on Water Security and director of the Institute for Water, Environment and Health in Canada.

Even solar panels need regular washing to perform well. Wind energy might be an exception, Adeel told IPS from a water conference in Beijing being held during World Water Week.

There is growing recognition that peak oil is nowhere near as important as peak water because there is no substitute for water. The growing shortage of water — 1.2 to 1.7 billion people face scarcity — has alarmed many. Water has been identified as an “urgent security issue”, by a group that last year included both former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the InterAction Council, an association of 37 former heads of state and government.

It’s important that “water security” be recognised by the U.N. Security Council as either as a trigger, a potential target, or a contributing factor to insecurity and potential conflict in many parts of the world, said Adeel.

Killer Heat Waves and Floods Linked to Climate Change

Projected drought and dry regions in 2060-2069
Projected drought and dry regions in 2060-2069

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Feb 27 2013 (IPS) 

Killer heat waves, floods and storms are increasingly caused by climate change, new research reveals.

Scientists in Germany say they have found how greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels are helping to trap the jet stream, resulting in extraordinary weather such as the 2010 Pakistan flood and the 2011 heat wave in the United States.

Human-driven climate change repeatedly disturbs the flow of atmospheric waves around the globe’s Northern hemisphere, said lead author Vladimir Petoukhov of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany.

Giant atmospheric waves called Rossby waves are meanders in the strong, high-altitude winds known as jet streams and have a major influence on weather. These wave movements are caused by the difference in temperatures between the cold air from the Arctic and hot air from the tropics. 

When the waves shift north, they suck warm air from the tropics to Europe, Russia, or the U.S., and when they swing down, they do the same thing with cold air from the Arctic, said Petoukhov.

“During several recent extreme weather events, these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks,” he said. “So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays.”

Help Wanted: 27 Planet Earths

This story was featured on the IPS wire and on the Al Jazeera network in 2011. It shows that national parks, conservation and protected areas do not and cannot halt the decline in biodiversity that is humanity’s life support system. It is hopeless without addressing the root causes: too many of us, taking too much and having too big of an impact. On our present course we’ll need 27 planet Earths by 2050 experts conclude. — Stephen 

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Jul 29, 2011 (IPS)

Protecting bits of nature here and there will not prevent humanity from losing our life support system. Even if areas dedicated to conserving plants, animals, and other species that provide Earth’s life support system increased tenfold, it would not be enough without dealing with the big issues of the 21st century: population, overconsumption and inefficient resource use.

Without dealing with those big issues, humanity will need 27 planet Earths by 2050, a new study estimates.

The size and number of protected areas on land and sea has increased dramatically since the 1980s, now totaling over 100,000 in number and covering 17 million square kilometres of land and two million square kilometres of oceans, a new study reported Thursday.

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But impressive as those numbers look, all indicators reveal species going extinct faster than ever before, despite all the additions of new parks, reserves and other conservation measures, according to the studypublished in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

“It is amazing to me that we haven’t dealt with this failure of protected areas to slow biodiversity losses,” said lead author Camilo Mora of University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“We were surprised the evidence from the past 30 years was so clear,” Mora told IPS. Continue reading

Governments Fail to Take Steps to Steer Away From Looming Crisis

ttfiscal carbon cliff

Rio+20 should have been about life, about the future of our children”

By Stephen Leahy

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 19 2012 (IPS)

“Very disappointing.” That was the term business and non-governmental organisations used to describe the formal intergovernmental negotiations at the Rio+20 Earth Summit as of Tuesday.

With overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the Earth’s ability to support human life is at serious risk, the Rio+20 summit is being held to help chart a safe course that will steer away from disaster and bring a better future people around the globe.

After two years, negotiators from more than 190 nations agreed Tuesday to a 49-page draft of the document “The Future We Want”, intended to be the roadmap for this transformation. This document will be presented to heads of states in Rio de Janeiro to revise and finalise by the summit’s conclusion on Friday.

Yet the draft document leaves out a 30-billion-dollar fund proposed by a group of developing countries known as the G77 to finance the transition to a green economy. Nor does it define tangible Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will be substituted for the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

“This (the revised text) is extremely disappointing….There is no vision, no money and really no commitments here,” said Lasse Gustavsson, head of the Rio+20 delegation from WWF International, which works to stop environmental degradation worldwide.

Rio+20 should have been about life, about the future of our children, of our grandchildren. It should have been about forest, rivers, lakes, oceans that we are all depending on for our food, water and energy security,” Gustavsson told TerraViva.

Instead, two years of work have resulted in merely a long document that commits to virtually nothing but more meetings, he said.Rio+20 logo

“This document is a great disappointment. There’s no ambition and little reference to the planetary boundaries we face,” said Kiara Worth, representing the U.N.’s Major Group on Children and Youth at Rio+20.

“The voices of civil society and future generations is going unheard. We ought to call this Rio minus 20 because we are going backwards,” Worth told TerraViva. Continue reading