From Rhino Vision to Water Vision

Learning to value and respect the hidden water that is all around us

Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science and Insight, a newsletter on what we all need to know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with a personal story and some useful ideas, all in 10 to 12 minute read in your inbox every Tuesday and Saturday morning.

Hello Friends,

Water is far more valuable and useful than oil and yet water rarely gets the attention it deserves. Nor does water get our respect, or the reverence that nearly all cultures far older than ours had for it. This issue’s overarching need-to-know is understanding and awareness of our water reality. To help this happen, let’s shift perspective and go looking for Rhinos.

Rhinos or rocks? An eye-opening lesson in humility

A few years ago I was hiking through the dry bush-covered savanna in South Africa with two local wildlife guides looking for Rhino. After a couple hours of trudging in the dusty mid-morning heat the guides stopped. 

“Over there… two rhino” one of them said.

I looked where he pointed but could see nothing but brush. So we crept closer. 

“Right there. A mother and her baby,” the lead guide said

“Where?” I asked again. 

The guides looked at each other. Rhinos are pretty big. Full-sized SUV big.

I’ve hiked lots of places. I’m pretty good at spotting deer, coyotes and even the odd black bear in the bush near my home in Canada. I’d even bragged a little the night before.

The guides took me closer…and closer still while slowly unslinging their rifles for safety.

”You mean those big grey rocks?” I asked uncertain. “The ones that are moving?”

That night, while sitting around the campfire in embarrassed silence, I realized I’d only ever seen Rhinos in zoos where they stand out like a monster truck in your driveway. I’d never seen them in their natural habitat where their dusty gray skin blends into the palette of the savanna as they silently slip in and out of patches of thick grey-brown bush.

By end of another long hike the next day I was spotting Rhino almost as fast as the guides. I’d developed ‘Rhino Vision’.  

That experience of shifting perspective, learning to see or understand something in its proper context, is one of the things I hope to do with Need to Know. In this issue I’d like to help you get  ‘Water Vision’ to see the hidden water that’s all around us.  

Our world is powered by water not oil

We all know water is essential to life, and we need to drink a two litres (half gallon) a day to survive. What we also need-to-know is that our modern civilization does not run on oil. It runs on water… a hell of a lot of water.  

It may look like our planet has a lot of water since it covers 70% of the Earth’s surface. However 97% is salt water. The 3% that’s fresh water is mostly locked up in polar ice, glaciers and permafrost or in ground water that’s either salt-laden or located in inaccessible places.  If all the water on the planet could fit into a litre bottle, the accessible freshwater we can use amounts to one tiny drop. (I did the math on this for my book “Your Water Footprint: The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products”.)

Three more need-to-knows about water:

  • 1. Water scarcity is far more common than we realize. Studies show that two in three people suffer from severe water scarcity for at least one month per year. In poor countries this means not enough drinking water or to grow their food. In rich countries it usually means water rationing. Scarcity is defined as consuming twice as much water then can be replenished. It means rivers and lakes drying up, ground water levels falling.

  • 2. Water scarcity isn’t just about not having enough water to drink and grow food.  It’s also not having enough water to produce energy, to provide materials for housing, water for clothes, paper, cars, electronics and everything else. The plain fact is that we need water to make anything.

  • 3. There’s an ocean-sized consumption of water consumed to grow food and make stuff. This water is called hidden or virtual water but it’s a real as the water that goes into your morning coffee. 

Let’s take a look at that cup of coffee. It takes water to grow the beans, water to process the beans, water to make the packaging, water to make the fuel to transport the beans, water to make the electricity involved in roasting the beans and so on. Arjen Hoekstra, Professor in Water Management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands has added up all that up to determine a cup of coffee consumes a whopping 140 litres (37 gal.) of water on average. That’s quite a bit more than the average bathtub.

Hoekstra coined the term “water footprint” to help understand how much water is used to make various things. 

The water footprint of a half litre bottle of cola is 175 litres, since 175 litres is consumed to make it. Here’s how it breaks down:

  • 30 to grow the corn or sugar beet to make the sugar 

  • 53 to grow the coffee beans for the caffeine. 

  • 80 for vanilla flavouring

  • 12 in manufacturing and processing 

  • 5  to make the plastic bottle

I use the word “consumed” to indicate this is water that evaporated, remains polluted or cannot be reused in a reasonable time frame. In other words, it can’t be used for anything else until some point in the future. The water cycle is essentially a closed loop and the amount of water today is roughly the same a billion years ago. (Latest science suggests enstatite chondrite meteorites are the source of the Earth’s water.)

One more food example: a medium size cheeseburger. Want to guess how much water is needed to grow feed for the cows, their drinking water, and for processing and shipping the meat? And then there’s the water needed to make the bun and slice of cheese. It’s a complicated calculation and I’m happy Arjen Hoekstra crunched all the data. 

The answer: 2,400 litres

A soy burger would only consume 250 litres. 

Cows are a very water-inefficient way of obtaining protein. Now this use of water might be sustainable if the cattle feed is made from rain-fed crops without any water pollution. But it might also be possible to grow a heck of lot of soy with the same water. Or not, if the land is only good for pasture. Farming is hyper local. 

A car as a giant bag of water rolling down the street

All the water consumed to provide our food, clothing, electronics, building materials, energy, showers, and other stuff adds up to 8000 litres of water per person per day in North America. That’s twice the global average and three, or even more times the amount of water people in poorer countries consume.

Of this 8000 litres, only 300 to 400 litres of this comes out of our taps for drinking, washing, cooking or flushing. There’s water hidden every where you can see. Imagine a car as one giant bag of water rolling down the street because without that water there’d be no car. 

This is all detailed in my book Your Water Footprint including 80+ pages of infographics about how much water is needed to make various things. It won an award as best science book of the year. The book’s three main takeaways: 

  • we’re far more reliant on water than we know 

  • we use far more water than we think 

  • we could use a hell of lot less if we wanted to

The root of the problem is water is undervalued and poorly managed nearly everywhere. The good news is that we can do nearly everything using less water. 

While low-flow shower heads and toilets are great, the water footprint concept can lead to far bigger reductions. For example if a family of four adopted “Meat-less Mondays” they’d save 425,000 litres a year. If they replaced beef with chicken year around they’d save 900,000 litres/year.

Switching to a vegetarian diet cuts a daily water footprint by 20 to 30%. There’s a rough correlation between things that are big water consumers and big sources of carbon emissions. A 2018 study found that 75% of the carbon footprint in the average European diet came from consuming meat and dairy products. They concluded vegetarian diet beats buying local when it comes to lowering carbon emissions.

I love eating vegetarian but it’s not always possible in my family for various reasons. Reducing our water footprint is about smart substitutions and changes rather than sacrifice and self-denial. Some more ideas you can use:

  • Cut food waste. Forty per cent of all food in North America is wasted, including the incredible amounts of water used to produce it. FYI best-before dates have nothing to do with food safety. 

  • When it comes clothes, electronics and everything else practice the 4Rs in this order: Reject, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

  • Water-wise purchasing also means asking the hard question: I do really need this?

With “water vision” we can clearly see water is more useful and valuable than oil. The good news is that it’s not hard to use much less water if we respect and value it.

Until next time, stay safe.


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