Drip, drip of your water footprint

LAST UPDATED: 29 Mar, 2009 @ 07:38
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Bob DentonForget your carbon footprint. It’s your ‘Water Footprint’ that you need to worry about, writes Bob Denton (left). The next 20 years are already forecast to bring us ‘water wars’ – and the move to dedicate increasing amounts of agricultural land to bio-fuels will only make things worse

WHEN you consider the vast oceans that encompass two thirds of the globe it seems crazy to imagine a shortage. But useable water is another matter, and only around two per cent of the world’s water is drinkable, with 65 per cent of that permanently locked away, frozen within glaciers and at the poles.

Far too much of the remaining third lies or falls in the wrong places. It either comes in too much of a rush as monsoons or floods, or it falls on remote areas where it cannot be ‘harvested’.

In the past three decades our population doubled while our water-use tripled – because, ton-for-ton, modern high-yielding crop varieties need more water than the traditional crops.

Over the last five decades the world population has risen from 2.5 billion to almost seven billion – and just this fact means that the water supply has effectively been reduced by almost two-thirds per person! And this population growth continues, estimated to reach nine billion by 2040 which will further complicate the situation.

We humans can last without shelter as long as we choose, (some have managed without food for as long as a month), but we can last only three to five days without water!

A fifth of the world’s population -1.2 billion people – currently lack a safe water supply.

A further 40 per cent (some 2.4 billion) live without secure sanitation.

And that’s why five million people die each year from water-related diseases; including a shocking 2.2 million children under the age of five. I probably knew, or to some extent appreciated, much of the above but when I came to write my first thriller ‘Still Water’. I researched the issues and was shocked when I began to delve a little deeper.

A sheet of A4 paper uses a massive ten litres of water in its manufacture It led me to think about what I have termed the ‘water footprint’. This is a measure of the water consumed in producing foodstuffs and other products.

For example, when you buy a litre of water in its plastic bottle be aware that the bottle manufacture used almost seven litres – this figure ignores getting the water extracted and transporting it to the shop.

A sheet of A4 paper uses water in growing the tree and then in its manufacture – every single sheet consumes a massive ten litres!

Efficiently producing each kilo of wheat uses 1,100 litres, each kilo of rice 2,300 litres and a kilo of beef uses 22,000 litres of water – and in many parts of the world production is far from efficient.

Around 60 per cent of our meagre useable water is flowing within some 300 river basins and these often form international boundaries, some on either bank of the river, others along the length of its course.

New dams, hydro-electric plants and irrigation schemes upriver cause shortages for the nations downstream.

A tenth of these river basins have more than five sharing countries. The Danube, for example, serves 18!

A UN publication in 2006 stated “With world demand for water increasing six-fold over the 20th century, there was no let-up in disputes over trans-boundary water issues, prompting some experts to predict that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water”.

Former UN boss Kofi Annan said: “Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict.”

Boutros Boutros Ghali added: “Competition for water resources could provoke wars in Africa and the Middle East”

The next contributory feature is that the huge populations of China and India are sustaining massive industrial growth as they seek and adopt features of our Western standards of living.

Chinese water consumption is currently just 700 cubic metres per capita, if they manage to achieve the USA equivalent that will rise to 2,500!

And just to round off this crisis – along come bio-fuels! As oil runs out, we strive to find alternative power sources and large tracts of our agricultural land are being redeployed to grow new bio-fuels.

But to run a single average US car for a year on this fuel requires the output of 11 acres of farmland!

The UK has targets to convert to 10 per cent bio-fuel use by 2020. Yet, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute, growing corn and then converting it into a litre of ethanol consumes almost twice the energy that the ethanol will generate. Indian sugar cane uses 3,500 litres of water to produce a litre of ethanol, Chinese maize uses 2,400 litres – yet China plans to quadruple its bio-fuel production by 2020!

Surely the plentiful seawater will be our salvation? Not so, as the high energy consumption in desalination of salt water is unsustainable and its by-product brine has huge disposal problems too.

So the rampant population growth, the burgeoning Asian industrial expansion and the drive towards bio-fuels are all advancing into a crisis.

If you are drinking a small cup of coffee as you read this, think about the 140 litres of water needed to grow the beans, and before you walk away from this subject reflect upon the 8,000 litres consumed in rearing the cattle and manufacturing the leather in your pair of shoes!

Don’t forget we are all downstream!

Bob Denton, who lives in Javea, Alicante, has incorporated the issues of water and your water footprint into a new thriller called Still Water. It is published by Pegasus/Vanguard Press (ISBN 9781843864899 )

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