Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Global water shortage

Water footprintIt's difficult to remember that other areas of the world are increasingly getting drier due to global climate change and the loss of topsoil due to industrial agricultural practices (less plant life + less trees = less moisture captured in an area). Since we tend to get so much steady rain in Seattle, I usually don't consider water shortages as the top of my list of things to worry about. But it should.

For many people in the rest of the world, that's not at all the case. In fact, water is a resource people are and will fight more and more over. Riparian rights and state's rights over water resources have been and still are a huge issue in America's southwest and will only get worse as a large growing population drains aquifers with little replenishing them.

Here are some cheery facts I received in my email from Sustainable Ballard:

• While the average American uses 150 gallons of water per day, those in developing countries cannot find five. (
• The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns. (
• A water footprint, or virtual water, is the amount of water used in the entire production and/or growth of a specific product. For example, 2.2 lbs of beef has a water footprint of 4,226.8 gallons; one sheet of paper has a water footprint of 2.6 gallons; one cup of tea has a water footprint of 9.2 gallons; and one microchip has a water footprint of 8.5 gallons. (
•Water is a $400 billion dollar global industry; the third largest behind electricity and oil. (CBS News, FLOW the film)
• There are over 116,000 human-made chemicals that are finding their way into public water supply systems. (William Marks, author of Water Voices from Around the World, FLOW the film.)
• According to the National Resources Defense Council, in a scientific study in which more than 1,000 bottles of 103 brands of water were tested, about one-third of the bottles contained synthetic organic chemicals, bacteria, and arsenic. (

When we lived in California, I was much more concerned about water availability, mostly because I was reminded of how arid it was every day. In fact, my husband used to have nightmares of turning on the tap and having brown, muddy water come out. But, now that we are back in the land of wetness, those thoughts are not so pressing.

Do you feel like scarcity and health of the world's fresh water sources is an issue? Or is it so far down your list of concerns you don't really think about it?

Related books: For an awesome book about water and the American West, check out Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Revised Edition


Penny Basket said...

we had almost 3 months without rain in my town. it was the longest drought i remember. sure made us realise the importance of water. thankfully the rain has come a few days back

Robj98168 said...

Makes you wonder how Pepsi Co, Coca Cola, Nestle and others get away with the Bottled Water and wasting the water resource like they do. SAY NO TO BOTTLED WATER

Kate said...

As for you, it's pretty far down my list of priorities. I try to be mindful of it. We do have a dual-flush, low flow toilet, and we do let thing mellow. But I'm not in a water scarce area and we don't even have a meter, let alone get a water bill. We have our own well, so the only cost to us is for the electricity needed to pump it into our home.

I was going to say there's *no way* I use 150 gallons per day. But then, we've had a week of dry summer weather just when lots of my garden seeds are trying to germinate. Between a shower, watering the garden twice yesterday, and all the other incidental uses, I probably did hit 150 gallons. Still, I'd be shocked if that were a regular event.

Ashley said...

Living in central California, it's hard not to notice that we have water issues. I admit that water use isn't my top priority, but we've been making efforts to cut back further on water use (especially since the new water meter goes into use this month).

I do get upity with neighbors over their water use (watering on city-wide "no water" days, hosing down entire front pavement area, never watering during watering hours/days) and have actually talked with local candidates in the upcomming election about water harvesting ideas (needed in this ag community!) and the lack of enforcement for current water regulations.

owlfan said...

I can't imagine using 150 gallons per person per day. We rarely hit that for a family of 4 - really only when it is very dry and we are watering the blueberry plants.

Katy said...

Living in the Bayou City, one need only walk out the door to see the nearest creek bed. Am I worried about water sortage? No. I am worried about what we are doing to our water. I worry about the crap that gets dumped by all the oil refinaries and just your every day people who are too lazy to carry their to go bags to the nearest trash can. The global water shortage is something that is in the back of my mind, but the clean water shortage is the thing that gets me all rilled up.

Farmer's Daughter said...

After all the flooding here, it seems far down the list of concens. But last night our well pump went out, so we don't have running water right now... helps me take water issues more seriously and be thankful I breastfeed.

Stephanie said...

I am very aware of it. We live in Arizona and it drives me crazy to live here. No one cares that water is scarce, they think it will last forever.

Aimee said...

I've just read the national geographic special issue out on newsstands now that is all about the global water crisis. Not very cheerful reading I'm afraid but probably important. Part of my long term plan here on the homestead is for water security. I want ten thousand gallon cistern and capability to filter rainwater for drinking. And it rains here even more than in Seattle!! But we all depend on snowpack and that is unreliable. Also I think that we in water rich northwst may soon start selling a lot ov our water to California and the southwest.

Anonymous said...

I think that globally it is a very, very important issue. I remember years ago watching some show (I think it was on PBS and was a round table sort of discussion) and this one scientist was saying that water will be what World War III is about. I was a bit skeptical, but that idea has stayed with me.

When we lived in Phoenix, I was more concerned about water. I don't think Phoenix will run out, but what about the areas south, say in Mexico, where the Colorado River used to run? Las Vegas and Phoenix use so much of that Colorado River water. The issue is not just water use, but who gets first dibs? It seems it will always be the wealthier nations. They will be the ones to build dams, reservoirs, etc. and essentially cut off the people downstream.

Where we are now, I admit that water is not a big concern. There is a creek right out back. We have a well (and yes it could run dry, but we are in a bottomland, so it seems doubtful!), and we can catch gallons and gallons of rainwater for the garden if we need to. I worry more about the chemicals and toxins that are in the water from all the farming around us than I do about the amount of water.

phabulous_philly said...

I can't say it's at the top of my list of major concerns - I live in a town that gets a fair amount of rain and on the edge of two large lakes in Ontario.
The stats I read really made me take becoming vegetarian into serious consideration.
I typically think about preserving water when doing laundry, dishes, showering and brushing my teeth. I don't buy bottled water unless it's an absolute emergency - it seems like tap water is a hard commodity to come by in a store or restaurant and your dog is really thirsty on a hot day - but excuses suck anyways!
I never thought about how much water goes into beef production or even paper production even though it all makes perfect sense.
I try not to print things unnecessarily at work however today I plan to print off a copy of some of these stats and leave it laying around the office for people to accidentally educate themselves with ( I would email it but I honestly work with people in their 60's and 70's that don't even know how to open their email - FRUSTRATING )

Samantha said...

i'm very aware of my water usage, mostly because i live on a boat on a mooring field, which means we have no water hook-ups. we have to fill water jugs on land and carry them to the boat to fill our water tank. we use about 25 gallons every two weeks. of course that doesn't include showers... last week we had an overnight guest and he left the water running while he was brushing his teeth. my boyfriend and i were cringing at how much water was wasted! our future plans include outfitting the boat with a water desalinator so we can make our own fresh water right here on the boat. :)

Anonymous said...

That 150 gallon figure must include lawn watering, swimming pools, or something. I wonder what the average would be if you took those two things out of the calculations?

Also, beef raised on irrigated corn might use 4226.8 gallons per kilo, but not if it's raised on pasture. Matron of Husbandry calculate that her pasture-raised beef has a footprint of around 18 gallons per pound.

Still, there ARE people who build fake ponds in their yards, fill them with chemicals, and let the water evaporate, and MOST of the beef in this country does require unbelievable amounts of water to produce. We DO have a water problem, and we're really going to start feeling it soon...


Rosa said...

I think about it mostly in terms of what we buy that's imported - mangos are a big water user in the places they're produced, and we love them.

At home we do some water-reuse (watering plants with shower water, having a rainbarrel) but our big thing is not the total amount available but management - flood management, drought management, runoff management, contamination management. And that's not as addressable on a one-household level (though our contribution to flood and runoff management is picking the plastic trash out of the sewer grates before they wash into the sewers and block them up or end up in the Mississippi.)

Debbie said...

Actually, I hear the per person water figure is much higher once one takes into account the water used in creating our food, producing ethanol for gas, etc. Lester Brown's book "Plan B 4.0" shows a great deal of data on how water/food are our most critical global problem today. Our environmental issues are inseparable from them. The Earth Policy Institute website has the 4.0 version of the book online for free. I chose to buy it. Very well written and fascinating.

Colleen said...

I was going to say that surely we use more household water than we're aware of; then I looked at our water bill and calculated that as a family of 4, with 2 adults, one 3 yr old and one 3 month old, that during the time I was home on family leave and doing at least one load of laundry daily, washing dishes daily, flushing most of the time (my son won't pee into a toilet that has pee in it, since we are winding up the toilet *learning* I'm not pushing that right now), wiping baby with many warm wet washcloths, and in general cringing in anticipation of our water bill, we used 125 gallons per day, average (not pp/d). I still am sick about our water/sewer bill, which is $222 for 3 months, but am a little surprised that we didn't use more, as we are not hyper about water conservation, just moderate. Families using 100 g/d/p must be rich, and we're in Portland.

I think in my case, I am more concerned about what others say, the water used to produce disposable, overproduced and overused luxury goods (I consider things like disposable baby wipes, soda, and overpackaged goods in this category), other excess crap around households that is really unnecessary (have a friend that is a personal organizer and it is shocking), industrial use, and water pollution to be bigger problems - - at this time.

Also I want to make a point that even though bottled water has its issues, I'm still glad to have it in the stores as an option when I don't have a water bottle from home. I'm more opposed to overprevalence and consumption of soda (really, many many people are addicted to it), which has many of the same issues as bottled water, but is a huge burden on our health and therefore quality of life and healthcare system. People are going to drink something when they are thirsty. I'm all for encouraging people to use and tote around personal water bottles. But it just doesn't always happen.

I think what happens when water runs too short in a community, is that the community dies - and they go where there is water. So I think that water-plenty countries like the US should prepare for that. I'm in civil engineering and it is a big topic in this field. But a lot of what we do has to be driven politically, so it's not always easy to get the best plans implemented.

I saw Flow, and it was a wonderful movie. I highly recommend it.

Oldnovice said...

We're in North Texas and have been through several droughts where ranchers sold their cattle because they couldn't afford to feed them.

I'm probably more conscious of water waste than the average person. That said, I have a full rain barrel and a patio lined with 5-gallon buckets full of rain water from LAST year.

As soon as I started collecting rain water we were blessed with tons of rain.

Always in my head (when using water for ANYTHING) is the picture of someone in the 3rd world who begs for one jug of water/day and walks miles for that.

Peak Oil Hausfrau said...

We have periodic drought periods here in OK. I was concerned enough about water to buy 850 gallons worth of rain tanks, and that's what we use to water our garden.

When I calculate out our water bill, we each use about 22 - 33 gal. per day. But is that 150 gallons figure something that includes our "footprint" of consumption - that water included in what we eat, buy, and so on? If so, I'm sure we are much higher, unfortunately, even though we eat pastured meat and free-range eggs.

Brad K. said...

Kate, Owlfan,

I don't think the 150 gallons means that is what your water meter says.

Did you notice the impact of a kilo (2.2 lbs) of beef? 4,226.8 gallons. How many times a month to you purchase 2 1/4 pound of beef - adding the 4,226.8 gallons to your monthly water "usage". Or eat a hamburger or two, that adds up (the uncooked weight, that is).

How many computer chips (at 8.5 gallons each) are in your computer, your flash drive, your MP3 player - your car? your car radio?

There is water impact for light bulbs and paint and anything that someone has to make - they are consuming water to work, and also to be hale and healthy to get to work.

Crunchy, I was disappointed your list didn't include cars, pickups, electric cars, and the electricity needed to charge an electric car. Assuming, of course, the electricity wasn't generated at Hoover Dam. If anyone is interested - nuclear and fossil fuel fired, steam-electric plants also consume a bunch of water.

Also, I wonder, amidst all that plentiful rain in the NW - how much stuff from the atmosphere, from volcanoes and ships at sea, airplanes and cars and trucks, is washed into the ground (or drained back out to sea) with the rain? How much stuff that settles on buildings, with their plastic windows and caulked windows, their unregulated mortar and cement mixes, and whatever might or might not have been present when the cement and sand and other materials were gathered and processed. Some structural cement has very interesting products added, to make it bond better, and make it stronger.

Much welding is done with "welding rod" - with flux coating the steel central rod. The flux burns off as the rod is consumed, creating a temporary space at the place where the arc of electricity creates a spot of plasma, melting the base metal and consuming the metal of the rod. The flux temporarily protects the molten steel from impurities in the air - while creating some amount of fairly exotic chemicals, including impurities "blown off" the base metal while molten. These exotic and unpredictable compounds just blow away into the air. Any place stick welding takes place. Like construction sites, repair and welding shops, home welding setups.

Grass fires and wild fires loft tons of volatile and non-volatile things into the air. Gravel and hard surface roads loft bits of the road, dust, and tires into the air. I am told micrometiorites add a centimeter of dust to the earth's surface every year.

Having rain isn't the same thing as having clean water. While living in Arizona, I was told it takes decades or centuries for water entering an aquifer to wend its way to the well we used.

Holly said...

Hmmm.. Check out this Mother Jones chart on Water. They had a spread on water in the fall, but I found this chart the most to the point it gets. Rethink those jeans, and according to this, one pound of cheese requires 599 gallons of water! YIKES! I think we are all using more than our water bill shows.
Interesting that a pint of beer uses less water than OJ.

Eco Yogini said...

same- we get so much water here that I don't think about it beyond the human rights- water is not a commodity issue.

Except I thought about it this morning when Five Seed wrote about ways to decrease shower-water usage. I suck at this.

nice reminder. :)

Shana said...

Very aware of water use, always looking for ways to cut further.

Wholeheartedly agree with "Cadillac Desert" rec. Was assigned a couple of chapters for my history of ecology class, but ended up devouring the whole thing. Great, great read.

Shadow said...

We have rainbarrels & use them to water the garden. But after having over 1 foot of rain in the last month (yes, a FOOT) I am so ready for a dry spell I could scream ;)