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Water is far more valuable and useful than oil

Posted on 30 January 2015 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from The Guardian by Stephen Leahy about his new book

I have a confession: I knocked back 320 pints at the pub last night. I actually only had two shots of a decent single malt but it took 320 pints of water to grow and process the grain used to make the whisky. That’s a whole lot of water considering the average bathtub holds 60 to 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: 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.

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Comments 1 to 12:

  1. "Water is far more valuable and useful than oil "

    They're fiding that out in Sao Paulo now.

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  2. They found it out in Akkad, Angkor, and Canyon de Chelly quite a while ago.

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  3. In addition to regional shortages of water, contamination of water is also happening on a massive scale, including contamination by plastic waste.

    Burning buried hydrocarbons, or turning them or anything else into plastics, are clearly not sustainable activities, except in the minds of people whowant to claim that prolonging the ability to benefit from those actions is 'sustaining something' and can therefore be called sustainable action.

    Many fossil fuel industry related companies have created departments for 'Sustainability'. And those groups promote all the ways they 'improve their activity' without ever admitting it ultimately cannot be sustained.

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  4. Water recycles naturally, oil does not. Water is very valuable and will remain very valuable in the difficult times ahead. Oil temporarily plays a major role in the operation of technological systems. The artcle is comparing apples to oranges so spoils the valuable message on water.

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  5. denisaf,

    Oil is not being carefully and exclusively used to advance to a sustainable better future for all. And the 'frivolous' pursuit of benefit from oil threatens water quality and the reliability of water supply. That is the crux of the issue. So your comparison in the context of this article is not really relevant.

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  6. OPOF, I agree with denisaf. Water is a renewable resource, though usable supplies can be reduced by contamination. If I flush my toilet thirty times a day, that will not reduce the amount of water available here by Lake Erie twenty or a hundred years from now, except possibly as a result of climate change because of extra energy used to pump the water up to provide water pressure.

    Water shortages are local problems, due to climate, overpopulation, or contamination. Saving water in one place does not help shortages elsewhere, except maybe downstream. The real problem with wasting water is the concomitant waste of energy, and I don't think the article makes that connection clear enough.

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  7. Treesong2,

    Though the article did not clearly explain the many ways that the economic activities related to the burning of oil are threatening water supplies, those activities are well understood to be threats to clean water supply.

    Another point is that climate change projections have indicated that 'regional' access to clean water will be dramatically reduced by climate changes. These regional changes of access would require global open borders to ensure everyone can go wherever they need to get what they need. But even then there would be significant effort related to the relocations. And the relocations may need to be made many times as the regional climates go through stages of change.

    Saying there will still be water somewhere on the planet fails as a defense of the damaging and unsustainable burning of oil.

    The article's assertion, as I see it, that 'the unsustainable attempts to benefit from burning non-renewable buried hydrocarbons are less valuable than the human need for clean water in the regions humans live' still seems to stand in spite of your suggestions so far.

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  8. The article suggests that we will need to improve our 'water use efficiency' in the future. That is obviously the preferred course and would be very beneficial even ignoring climate change. However, I suspect we may go another route entirely... desalination. There is a ridiculous over-abundance of water on this planet, even considering our wasteful means of using it. The problem is just that most of it is 'salt water' in the oceans rather than the 'fresh' water we use for most applications. There has been a lot of research into more and more 'efficient' ways to desalinate ocean water. Logistically, it may be 'easier' (read, 'less expensive') to continue using water in all the wasteful ways we do currently and use desalination to make sure that enough is available than it would be to find and implement efficiency improvements separately for each of the thousands of ways we currently use water.

    Clearly we are going to need to make changes for our water usage to remain 'sustainable' in the future, but increasing usage efficiency is not the only solution. Though it is the better one.

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  9. Recommended supplemental reading:

    National Geographic takes a look at four arid regions looking to renewables for the energy-intensive work of squeezing drinkable water from the ocean in...

    Can Sun and Wind Make More Salt Water Drinkable? by Marianne Lavelle,
    National Geographic, Feb 2, 2015

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  10. no worries, we can melt the glaciers and ice sheets to get more water... maybe I should disband myself of writing in hangover.

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  11. Recommended supplemental reading:

    World has not woken up to water crisis caused by climate change: IPCC head by Nita Bhalla,  Thomson Reuters Foundation, Feb 3, 2015

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  12. denisaf: There is misunderstanding about water as renewable. Water does recycle but does it return to where it's needed and in an acceptable time frame? Not always. Drain a lake and it may not refill in your lifetime — where will you get your water in the meantime? The Aral Sea disaster offers an example. 

    Water scarcity is about time and place.

    Treesong2: Only a small fraction of the water in Lake Erie is renewable - the rest is the gift of the last ice age. Lake levels have been falling in recent years mainly due to warmer winters. While your toilet water may be recycled, some of it is lost through leaks and contamination (sewage sludge). 

    Toilet use is a very small part of our daily water use which is the point of the article. 

    OPOF: The article doesn't get into the impacts of climate change  - the book does.

    CBDunkerson: Desal is likely to be out of reach for most people suffering from water scarcity. 1.2 billion people today do not have access to clean water. Half the world cannot turn a tap in their home to get drinking water. Let's hope there are break throughs in desal energy/cost requirements. 

    JH: Good links. 90% of water use is to grow food. Climate change is going to make feeding ourselves much harder. 

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