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Drinkable Water Is Vanishing: A Few Simple Things We Can Do to Avert Catastrophe

How much water do we and all of our many products actually use? An expert breaks it down and tells us how to cut back.

The world is fast running out of fresh water, according to experts, and the results look grim -- more wildfires, droughts, rationing, less food and more hunger. The causes are linked to overconsumption and an increasing number of people living on the planet. What each of us does in our daily lives can contribute to either exacerbating the water crisis or averting it, according to best-selling environmental writer Tom Kostigen. Kostigen's latest book, The Green Blue Book: Tthe Simple Water Savings Guide to Everything in Your Life, quantifies the hidden water content of every aspect of life -- from buying blue jeans to eating a strawberry. 

Maria Armoudian: Let's start with the problem. You have said in your new book that since the age of dinosaurs, we really have had the same amount of water but that is changing for the first time now. How is that?

Tom Kostigen: It's because of a couple of different things: One is population growth. There are more of us [using water]. Then with technology, it's the things that we use, our stuff. In the U.S., the average home has 10,000 items in it. That's an awful lot of stuff. Things go into making that stuff and one of those things is water. So we're taking more out of the system just to create things for our own use. The other missing link of all this is pollution of that water. So there's less fresh water or usable water, and we're seeing more and more of that today. Last week, Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, said that more people are dying from unsafe water than all the violence and wars in the world.

MA: You also describe the global water cycle. How do you explain that in simple terms for non-scientists to understand their relationship to fresh water?

TK: To put it in perspective, the water that falls onto the planet from the water cycle is about three feet that would cover the entire planet in fresh water. So you start to take that away, chip away at it. We know from school that water is molecules, H2O, two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. These molecules bounce around in different ways so the rain here in California may have been, at one point, water in the Great Lakes or snow in the Sierras or some place in the Himalayas. So when you start to conceptualize it that way, we see that we all share in this massive pot of water.

Now, we in the United States take twice as much as everybody else in the world on average. So the average person in the U.S. needs about 13 gallons of water on a daily basis: that's to drink, to bathe, to wash. We use close to 150 gallons each. In a Third World country, they use five gallons; we use that in one flush of the toilet. That is really the disconnect that we have to chip away at, so that we can all make smarter decisions. One of those ways is through virtual water, which is the embedded water in everything. For example, how much water goes in your blue jeans?

MA: How did you calculate this?

TK: We started from base ingredients. How much water does it take to grow cotton? Then we can start to say, oh, that's how we get to 3,000 gallons of water for a pair of blue jeans. How much does it take for a pound of oats? One-hundred and twenty-two gallons. Okay, who eats oats? Cattle. How much water do they need? How much water is in the processing? So you start to see how we put the pieces together.

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