Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
So far, how much water have you used since you were born?
If you can’t guess, you’re not alone. But the book, Your Water Footprint by Stephen Leahy, gives some ideas. For instance, to produce one smartphone requires 910 liters – or 240 gallons – of water.
“Cellphones and smartphones use water throughout their production process, from creating the microchips to mining the metals used in the batteries to polishing the silica glass used in their touch screens,” Leahy wrote. “In total, each phone requires 910 liters of water to manufacture.”
It has been predicted that the number of activated cell phones is soon expected to exceed the world’s population. “To manufacture these phones will require 6.7 trillion liters (1.8 trillion gallons) of water, much of it blue and grey,” Leahy said.
Let’s talk about soft drinks, one of the most popular drinks among the younger generations today. One 500-milliliter (17-ounce) bottle of soft drink requires 175 liters (46 gallons) of water. Soft drink is almost entirely water, so a half-liter bottle effectively contains a half-liter of water.
“That’s the direct water input,” pointed out Leahy, an independent journalist for over 20 years who has reported on environmental issues from dozens of countries. “But soft drinks are not just water in a bottle. When you include the production of all the flavoring ingredients (the highest consumptive factor), the manufacturing and supply chain, each bottle requires about 175 liters.”
But it’s in food production that water is most critical. “The link between water and food is strong,” says Lester R. Brown, president of Washington, D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute. “We drink, in one form or another, nearly 4 liters of water per day. But the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000 liters to produce, 500 times as much.”
For instance, to raise a ton of rice, you need a thousand gallons of water, according to the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute. About 89% of Filipinos consume rice on a daily basis, some studies show.
It takes so much water to grow crops. Global food: Waste not, want not, published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), showed that a farmer who plants cabbage has to water his crop with 237 liters to come up with 1 kilogram of the leafy vegetable. To produce a kilogram of tomato, about 214 liters of water is needed.
“We’re surrounded by a hidden world of water,” pointed out Leahy. “Liters and liters 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, as Leahy defined it, 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,” he said.
Leahy explained it further in these words: “The water footprint of 500 ml of bottled water is 5.5 liters: 0.5 for the water in the bottle and another five contaminated in the process of making the plastic bottle from oil. The five liters consumed in making the bottle are as real water as the 500 ml you might drink but hardly anyone in business or government accounts for it.”
Leahy 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, The Toronto Star, Wired News, and China Dialogue.
“One of the biggest surprises (while writing the book) was learning how small direct use of water for drinking, cooking and showering is by comparison,” he said. “Each day the average North American uses 300 to 400 liters.”
Surprisingly, flushing toilets are the biggest water daily use – not showers! “Four hundred liters is not a trivial amount; however, the virtual water that’s in the things we eat, wear, and use each day averages 7,500 liters in North America, resulting in a daily water footprint of almost 8,000 liters,” Leahy said. “That’s more than twice the size of the global average.”
While low-flow showerheads 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,” Leahy said. “Biodiesel made from soybeans has an enormous water footprint, averaging more than 11,000 liters per liter 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 liters for a kilo, according to Leahy. “If a family of four served chicken instead of beef they’d reduce their water use by an astonishing 900,000 liters a year. That’s enough to fill an Olympic size pool to a depth of two feet.”
“Of all the social and natural crises that we face today, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth,” surmised Koichiro Matsuura, former director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“Unlike copper, oil, and most other commodities, fresh water is not a resource that acquires value only when it is extracted and put to human use,” noted Sandra Postel and Amy Vickers, authors of the Handbook of Water Use and Conservation: Homes, Landscapes, Businesses, Industries, Farms.
Like air, water is essential for man’s survival. After all, water makes up more than two-thirds of the weight of the human body. Without water, humans would die in a few days.
As Dr. Willie T. Ong pointed out in his book, How to Live Longer: Practical Health Tips from a Heart Doctor: “No water, no life. Our bodies are made up of mostly water. Just look at these facts: The brain contains 74% water, blood contains 83% water, lean muscle has 75% and bone has 22% water.”
Liquid water has been on earth for at least 3 billion years, circulating between the sea, air, and land. Powered by the sun, the two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen have cycled through the atmosphere thousands upon thousands of times. Freshwater seems limitless as it falls from the sky year after year.
But water is a limited non-renewable resource, of which a fixed amount exists on the planet: some 1,400 million cubic kilometers, which can neither be increased nor decreased. Most of the bulk that is 97.4% is saltwater; another 2% is locked away in ice caps and glaciers. This leaves only 0.6%, or 8.4 cubic kilometers, of which some 8 million cubic kilometers are stored underground.
Put in another way: if all the earth’s water were fit in a gallon jug (4 liters), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the available water would be just over one tablespoon.
Potable water is one of the most important liquids that human beings need if they have to live in this world. “A person can survive only three to five days without water; in some cases, people have survived for an average of one week,” says waterpage.com. “Once the body is deprived of fluids, the cells and organs in the body begin to deteriorate. The presence of water in the body could mean the difference between life and death.”
A household with five members needs at least 120 liters of water per day to meet their basic needs for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry, and house cleaning, according to Worldwatch Institute.
Unfortunately, the country is almost running out of water for survival. “On a macro-level, it appears there is plenty of water, but we are now experiencing problems and, in some instances, some areas (of the country) are suffering from lack of water,” said Elisea Gozon when she was still in the environment and natural resources secretary.
The Philippines will likely experience a severe water shortage by 2040 – that’s 20 years from now! – due to the combined impact of rapid population growth and climate change, the World Resources Institute reported. Currently, the country ranks 57 out of 167 nations that are highly vulnerable to severe water shortages.
Postel, who is the director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project, believes water problems will trail climate change as a threat to the human future. “Although the two are related, water has no substitutes,” she explains. “We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. But there is no transitioning away from water to something else.”
“World demand for water doubles every 21 years, but the volume available is the same as it was in the Roman times,” observes Sir Crispin Tickell, former British ambassador to the United Nations and one of the organizers of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. “Something has got to give.”