Growing, processing and shipping the coffee from a mountain producer to the cup you held while deciding which T-shirt and jeans to wear used another 37 gallons of water. The medium burger and fries you may have for lunch adds another 673 gallons, most of it expended in watering the growing beef and potatoes, then processing the harvest into food you can grab onto.
A book by Canadian environmental journalist Stephen Leahy, titled “Your Water Footprint; the Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products,” offers, in narrative and easy to understand graphics, the story of “virtual water” consumption. Virtual water is the water we do not realize we have used as we go about our daily lives.
We often hear that human homes use about 100 gallons-a-day of fresh water for each resident. That includes washing clothes and dishes, flushing the toilet, showering, and yes, even drinking that wonderful life-sustaining combination of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Among what it does not include is the more than 4,000 gallons of “virtual water” required to provide for dinner a two-pound piece of beef – water the beef critter drinks as well as water to raise the grain and corn the animal eats, and then the water used to process the meat and transport it to the dinner table.
In nearly 150 pages, Leahy has compiled and indexed some surprising truths about our water use. For instance, the 17-ounce bottle of water we pop open on a hot day requires about 1.3 gallons of water to make – before it is filled with water to drink. He says “an incredible 357 billion liters (15 billion gallons) of water is consumed to make the plastic bottles Americans drink from every year.”
All but 2.5 percent of the planet’s water supply is salt water.
“Put another way, if the world’s water filled an 18-liter (5-gallon) water cooler bottle, the available fresh water would contribute only three teaspoons,” Leahy says.
Most of what is fresh water is frozen in glaciers and snowpacks. California offers a prime example of what happens when there is no snowpack in the mountains. A warming planet has changed air currents, and relatively little rain has fallen. Worse, winter snows have been far below normal, and it is the snowpack in the Sierra Mountains that melts in Spring and Summer and fills the state’s rivers and reservoirs.
According to a National Geographic story earlier this month, 11 of the past 15 years have been abnormally dry in California – four of them declared drought. A recent statewide survey revealed snowpack serving the Golden State to be less than 20 percent of its multi-decade average.
I knew there was a reason to like my stainless steel water bottle, beyond its obvious ability to keep my water cold. But I have to admit never thinking about water and my cell phone – which consumes about 240 gallons in the making; fortunately, I need only one every couple years.
About two billion people worldwide are affected by water shortages every year. Tribes in Yemen fight over water sources becoming increasingly scarce. In Brazil, where summer is drawing to its end, a drought has assaulted much of the country. Water experts estimate that by 2025 three in five people may be living with fresh water shortages.
Leahy notes 40 percent of industrial water consumption is used to cool power plants. “Virtual water” is consumed in virtually everything, from raising and processing food to cooling electricity plants.
“Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products” is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and numerous other booksellers. It is a worthy read, full of useful trivia about water use – and might encourage a little more care in protecting what remains.