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.

MA: You did this for furniture, you did it for everything.

TK: Yes, I'm partially crazy because of it, I have calculations going on in my head, and really it just takes everything down to its base. We make a lot of stuff, but there are base ingredients for everything. How much for the cotton, rayon, aluminum, then food products? You can really break it down to its very basics, which is a great thing for everyone to do, to figure out what we're buying, what's in the stuff that we're buying and whether that's on our back or we're ingesting it. It's a very healthy proposition for people.

MA: You also broke down, by industry, each of the major consumers of water. Farming is first, which makes sense.

TK: Yes, 70 percent of our fresh water goes to agriculture.

MA: And then industry.

TK: Second biggest, 20 percent.

MA: And then the rest of it is personal consumption.

TK: That's us, 10 percent.

MA: So if we were going to look at an average American's lifestyle. And you're going to say, these are the 10 areas that people should address first, what would you say those top 10 are?

TK: The first one is energy. That may be surprising to a lot of people, but 50 percent of the water in the United States goes to create electricity. Every time you turn on the tap for just a few minutes, that's equivalent to a 60 watt bulb being burned for 14 hours. There's a nexus between what we do. So energy is a big one -- turn off the light when you leave the room; you save energy; you save water; you save money. Buy local. Forget about transportation costs.

Also how much water does it take to grow things in arid nations? A lot of people have Egyptian cotton shirts or sheets. Egypt is a desert country. It's 100 percent irrigation. We forget about these things. Cotton in the United States is likely only 50 percent irrigated. We can make smarter decisions by buying local, thinking about what we're doing in terms of our energy use.

Then we should look at one of the biggest consumers in terms of the ingredients. So taking a look at our food choices, should we be buying peaches in January? Probably not, because they've been stored, and there's a lot of water in these things. Can we recycle? When you start to look at the enormous amount of water it takes to create virgin ore for aluminum, it's massive. You can chop that down by an exponent just by recycling.

Then look at your other products. It takes three liters of water to make a one-liter plastic water bottle. That's without the water inside it. So we start to make these choices throughout all the shifts in your life. It gets back to the three R's: reduce, reuse, recycle. That little cup at the bottom of the coffee pot that you toss out without thinking adds up to an enormous number.

MA: Let's use the coffee example: you said if one person keeps one cup of water from being sent down the drain then we have enough to provide two million gallons to the 1.1 billion people who have no access to fresh water.

TK: That's [cumulative with] everyone who drinks coffee. If you're drinking coffee and you're tossing that away, think about that, that one cup represents 590 cups of water or 37 gallons, to look at it another way. Coffee is the second-most-traded commodity in the world besides oil. We have to start to think about what we're using, where it's coming from and be more conscious and conservative about our use.

MA: I thought the food choice section was quite interesting, too. Some of it people know, like most of us know that vegetables take far less water than meat. But it's really a huge difference.

TK: If you look at swapping out a veggie burger for a hamburger you save 600 gallons -- in one meal. It takes about between 1,300 and 1,500 gallons of water for meat, depending on the cut of meat.

MA: Let's understand how that works on the food chain.

TK: The higher you go up the food chain the more water it takes. So beef cattle in the United States eat a lot of oats. Oats take about 122 gallons of water to be grown, so you have that step of the cycle, you have to grow the oats, 122 gallons there per pound. Then once the cattle have to be fed, you're into another equation of water. Then that meat has to be processed, packaged and transported; so all of a sudden it goes way up the chain as opposed to potatoes or corn or other types of vegetables that are just very low on the food chain.

MA: Another big issue that you address, especially in the U.S., is the garden.

TK: We use about 70 percent of our residential water for our lawns. There is a big problem with that. In Los Angeles, we get to water twice a week. In my neighborhood, a lot of people don't pay attention to that.

MA: In L.A. they're supposed to be rationing.

TK: They should be, and I think that's a great thing because we've shored up about 23 percent of our water supplies just from rationing. What are we using the water for? Do we really need imported turf? Can we start to do things like xeriscape? Can we then cut back on profligate use for our outdoor water plants? Just for plants alone, most outdoor plants are overwatered by 50 percent, indoor plants by 90 percent. We don't think about it; we just think they should be wet all the time without realizing how much water that really encompasses. But little shifts in habit like that add up to a huge number.

MA: Let's move to the bathroom and the toothbrush.

TK: Well, toothpaste itself is already 50 percent water. And every two minutes of the tap is about five gallons, so start to think about people in those Third World countries again. And there you go; you're back to the number five again, just from shaving, from keeping the tap running while we're brushing our teeth and by taking longer showers than probably we need to.

MA: And one more on the number. You said it's a myth that we need eight glasses of water a day. What are you basing that on?

TK: We get most of our water from our food. So we don't need as much as what we think. When they say you need those eight glasses a day they're also taking into account the amount of water that's in your food. So certainly I'm not saying for anyone to drink less water. I don't want anyone to be dehydrated. But a lot of people over-hydrate, like people who work out a lot. That's a big problem that hasn't really gotten the exposure that it might when you start to think about it.

MA: How much of an impact would it make if people cut their water consumption by a cup a day?

TK: Oh, millions of gallons. That's the thing we forget about. There are a few hundred million people here in the United States, and there's almost seven billion around the world. When we do the numbers and calculate it out that way, we can make a huge impact.

MA: What about using graywater systems and rainwater capture. How difficult are these for people to install and use? And what are the regulations that may make it difficult to do?

TK: The graywater system is a little bit trickier because there are a lot of regulations about that. Graywater is the water after you wash your face that goes down the drain. That water comes out somewhere. It's not toilet water, but it is a form of waste water, not fresh water. So what can you do with that? There are filters that you can use to get rid of the soaps and then use it for your garden. It does get complicated and more expensive, but you hit on a really good point -- the rain barrel system. They even sell them at Whole Foods now. You can grab a rain barrel and stick it in your backyard. Some people put them on their roofs or underneath their gutters, and recapture that rain that falls onto the roof. In an average temperate zone in the United States, a family of four can actually live off that rainwater. They don't need to have any other source of water besides that. There are three states where you actually can't -- In Colorado, Utah and Washington state, it's illegal to recapture rainwater.

MA: Why is that?

TK: Because we're on a right of first appropriation law in the West, as opposed to a riparian law in the East. So there is a kind of a problem with that. But in other states, you can really reuse water -- whether it's through the rain, or if you have the means and knowledge, the graywater system.

MA: What about travel and sports?

TK: Travel includes not only the amount of water that's used for the plane and the jet fuel and all of the related stuff, but planes also disturb water vapor. They create disturbances amongst where rain actually falls. It has a disturbing effect on the atmosphere. The other thing is the plastic water bottles. When you go through security, you see them stacked up. It's crazy. People take their water bottle, they get to security and then realize they can't take it through and toss them out. And there are many things like that which require water that we don't realize. As for sports, where you actually play? What type of turf do you play on? What time of year do you play? All of that matters.

MA: Is golf the worst?

TK: Golf is the worst, but it is also the most conscious, which I found just fascinating. The PGA is all for water tolerant turfs, for watering at certain times of the day to make good use. They're really getting more and more sophisticated about it. And then of course the skiing community is really scratching its head because of global warming climate change. We don't have the seasons like we used to. But the point is that there are things that you can do to mitigate your footprint when you're playing sports and just trying to live a little more consciously.

MA: If people really did become very water conscious and reduced their water consumption, could it really offset what industry does? Or are we asking ourselves to do what industry should be doing?

TK: I think that both of those things are important, and they're not mutually exclusive. A lot of people feel like even though they want to do something, and even though they may do a lot of things, they think it doesn't make a difference. But it does. It makes a difference in your community and to yourself, so there's an ethical proposition there. But also it sends a message to industry, especially if we all could start to band around this thing.

Look at the Prius. It's the perfect example. The fact that it was so well received in the marketplace and it's done so well for Toyota. It was a message that was sent by consumers. It's one of the biggest things we can do is to send a message to business, and the government will start to hear about it as well.

MA: Finally, how can people actually calculate their water footprints?

TK: If you go to thegreenbluebook.com there's a water footprint calculator people can use for free and just calculate their water footprint. And there's a groovy new video we just put on there too, explains a lot of this stuff in an animated way.

Maria Armoudian is the host and producer of the Insighters, which is heard on KPFK in L.A. and Santa Barbara and WPRR in Grand Rapids, Michigan.