The world is fast running out of freshwater, and the results could be very grim: more wildfires, droughts, rationing, less food, more hunger. The causes are linked to overconsumption and a growing human population. Can we reverse the trend? Thomas Kostigen, author of The Green Blue Book: The Simple Water-Savings Guide to Everything in Your Life, says we can, and he has quantified how much each of us contributes to either continuing water crisis or averting it. Maria Armoudian speaks with Kostigen about what people can do to help alleviate the water crisis.

Thomas Kostigen is a writer and journalist. He is the author of The Green Blue Book: The Simple Water-Savings Guide to Everything in Your Life.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Maria Armoudian: Let’s start with the problem. You have said in your book that since the time of the dinosaurs, we have had the same amount of water. It sounds like you are saying that’s all changing now?

Thomas Kostigen: Well it is because of a couple of different things. One is population growth, of course, because there is more of us. And then, of course, technology and the things that we use – our stuff – the average home has ten thousand items in it in the US, that’s an awful lot of stuff and things go into making that stuff, and one of those things is water. So we are taking more out of the system just to create things for our own use as well as the things that we use. And then the other missing link of all this is our pollution of that water, so there is less freshwater or usable water and we are seeing more and more of that. More people are dying from unsafe water than all the violence and all the wars in the world.

MA: You have mentioned that there is this global water cycle that occurs. So if we were going to put this in simple terms for people, how does this actually work and how does it relates to how much freshwater we have?

TK: The water that falls onto the planet is about three feet, which would cover the entire planet in freshwater. So you start to take that away and chip away at it. And then all of a sudden you start to say ‘Well okay, 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 conceptualise it that way and see that we all share in this massive pot of water, we in the US take twice as much as everybody else in the world on average. So the average person in the US needs about thirteen gallons of water on a daily basis, that is to drink, to bathe, to wash. We use close to 150 gallons each. In a third world country they use five gallons, and we use that in one flush of the toilet. So that is really the disconnect that we have to start to chip away at so that we can all make smarter decisions. And one of those ways that I get to in my book is through virtual water. And virtual water is the embedded water in everything, how much is in your jeans…

MA: How did you calculate this? I was looking at all these numbers and I thought how the hell did he do this?

TK: Well in the back of the book there is a massive reference section. So we used base ingredients and once you start to get down to the base ingredients, how much does it take for a pound of oats for example? 123 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, for cotton and then you can start to say oh that is how we get 3000 gallons for jeans.

MA: You did this for furniture, I mean you did this for everything.

TK: Yes. I am partially crazy because of it – a lot of calculations going on in my head. And really it just takes everything down to its base. And once you start to realise we make up a lot of stuff, but there are base ingredients for everything, cotton, aluminium, certain food products. You can really start to chip away at it and break it down to its very basics, which I think is a great thing for everyone to do. Figure out what we are buying, figure out what is in the stuff that we’re buying, and whether that is a very healthy proposition for people.

MA: In fact, you broke it down first of all in terms of industry. So farming I think you said was the largest consumer of water which makes sense.

TK: Yeah, seventy percent of all freshwater goes to agriculture.

MA: And then industry. And the then the rest of it is personal consumption. So if we were going to look at an average person’s lifestyle and you were going to say these are the ten areas that people should address first what would you say those top ten are?

TK: The first one is energy. This may be a surprising to a lot of people. Fifty percent of the water in the US for example goes to create electricity. For every time you turn on the tap for just a few minutes that is the equivalent to a sixty-watt bulb being burned for fourteen hours. I mean there are all these kinds of calculations you can get into, there is a nexus between what we do and what that does. So energy is a big one, when you 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 last time I checked is a desert country, it is one hundred percent irrigation. We forget about these things so try and buy something local. So we can make smarter decisions by buying local, thinking about what we are doing in terms of our energy use and then seeing what are the biggest consumers in terms of the ingredients, so taking a look at our food choices: should we be buying peaches in winter? Probably not, because they’ve been stored, and there’s a lot of water in these things. Can we recycle? Because when you start to look at the enormous amount of water it takes to create virgin ore for aluminium – it’s massive. You can chop that down by recycling. Then look at your other products: you need three litres of water to make a one litre plastic water bottle – that is without the water inside it. So you start to make these choices throughout all the shifts in your life and thinking about not throwing things away. It gets back to the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. That little cup of coffee at the bottom of the coffee pot that you toss out without thinking about it adds up to an enormous number.

MA: You used the coffee example, you said if one person keeps one cup of water from being sent down the drain that we have enough to provide two million gallons to the 1.1 billion people who have no access to freshwater.

TK: Yeah. I mean that is the thing if you are drinking coffee and you tossing that away, think about that. That one cup represents five hundred and ninety cups of water. So starting to think about things like coffee – coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world besides oil. I mean we have to start to think about what we are using, where it is coming from, and then being conscious and maybe a bit more conservative about our use.

MA: I thought the food choice section was quite interesting too and some of it I think people know to some degree that vegetables take far less water than meat. But it is a huge difference.

TK: I mean, if you look at swapping out say a vege burger for a hamburger, you save six hundred gallons.

MA: In one meal?

TK: One meal. It is about between thirteen and fifteen hundred gallons of water depending on the cut of meat.

MA: People still don’t understand why that is the whole chain of the water. Why don’t you explain that?

TK: The higher you go up the food chain the more water it takes. So cattle eat a lot of oats. Oats take about one hundred and twenty-three gallons themselves of water to be grown. So we have that step in the cycle where we have to grow the oats, one hundred and twenty-three gallons there per pound. Then once the cattle themselves have to be fed, you are into another equation of water, then that meat has to be processed and packaged and transported and so all of a sudden it goes way up the chain, as opposed to say potatoes or corn or other types of vegetables that are just very low on the food chain. The lesson there is to eat dirty and eat things that are less sweet.

MA: Okay and so then the other big issue is the garden.

TK: Yes. We use about seventy percent of our residential water for our lawns. We have a big problem with that. In Los Angeles we get to water twice a week. In my neighbourhood at least, a lot of people don’t pay attention to that and I try and make that known. And as a result, we have shored up about twenty-five percent of our water supplies just from rationing. So once we start to think about what are we using it for…do we really need imported turf? Can we start to do things like xeriscape? Can we then cut back on the profit we use for our outdoor plants? Just for plants alone, most outdoor plants are overwatered by fifty percent, indoor plants by ninety percent, we don’t think about it we just think they should be wet all the time but we don’t realise how much water that really encompasses. Little shifts in habit like that add up to a huge number.

MA: The other one that was really remarkable was when people leave the water running on their toothbrush.

TK: Yeah, well toothpaste itself is already fifty percent water and you know every two minutes of the tap is about five gallons. So start to think about people in third world countries again – there you go, you are back to that five number again just from shaving, keeping the tap running while we are brushing our teeth, and taking longer showers than probably we need to.

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

TK: There has been an awful lot of studies by the medical profession because they take a look at our food and we get most of our water from our food so we don’t need as much as what we think. So when they say you need those eight glasses a day, they are also taking into account the amount of water that is in your food. So certainly, I am not saying for anyone to drink less water, but there are a lot of people who overhydrate like marathon runners or people who work out a lot, and that is a big problem that hasn’t really gotten the exposure that it might.

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

TK: Millions of gallons. That is the thing we forget that there are almost seven billion people around the world and you start to do the numbers and calculate it out that way we can make a huge impact if we all did it.

MA: Now there are some things that I thought people would want to explore that they could do in their homes like the greywater systems and the rainwater capture. How hard is it to install something like that?

TK: The greywater system is a little bit more tricky because there are a lot of regulations about that and it does take a plumbing type of equation. Greywater is the water after you say wash your face and goes down the drain that comes out somewhere, that is greywater. It is a form of wastewater, it is not freshwater. So what can you do with that? Now there are filters that you can use to get rid of soaps and then use it for your garden. It does get more complicated and more expensive, but you hit on a really good point which is the rain barrel system. You can grab a rain barrel, stick it in your backyard, some people put them on their roofs or underneath their gutters and just recapture the rain that falls on to the roof. In an average temperate zone in the US, a family of four can actually live off that rainwater, they don’t need to have any other source of water besides that, but when it does rain, we can actually use that. Now there are three states where you actually can’t: Colorado, Utah, and Washington state it is illegal to recapture or to capture rainwater.

MA: Why is that?

TK: Because we are on a right of first appropriation law in the west as opposed to riparian laws in the east [of the United States]. Rainwater, of course, comes down and fills up our streams and our rivers, so right of first appropriation means that if you are a cattle farmer and you came here and say your name’s Bob, and you showed up at the river and you start to take your water allocation for the year. So farmer Bob takes his water allocation. Then farmer John comes and takes his water allocation he gets that for his life. Now if Bob starts to capture more of that rainwater through his barrels, he is in effect taking away from John’s allocation. But I think it is a really good thing to do if you have the means and the knowledge to create a rainwater system.

MA: The two areas that I just wanted you to touch on are travel and sports.

TK: Yeah, I mean, travelling, it is really interesting…When you start to look at not only the amount of water that is used for the plane and jet fuel and all that stuff, but planes also do another thing that I hadn’t realized until I started getting into the research, is that they disturb water vapor and create disturbances among where rain actually falls. So it really does have a disturbing effect on the atmosphere. And the other thing is plastic water bottles. When you go through security and you see them stacked up, it is crazy. So people take the water bottle they get to security and they go ‘Oh, I can’t even take it through’ and they end up tossing it out. A lot of things like that that require water we don’t even think about. And then sport. We mentioned the amount of water we could or should be drinking versus an over-amount of water, and then where you actually play, what type of turf do you play on, what time of year do you play…

MA: Is golf the worst?

TK: Golf is the worst but also the most conscious, which I found was fascinating. The PGA is all for water-tolerant turfs, they are all for watering at certain times of the day to mitigate their use, they are really getting more sophisticated about it as opposed to just saying ‘Well too bad this is what we do’. And then of course, the skiing community is really scratching its head because of global warming and climate change saying ‘Oh we don’t have the seasons like we used to’. So there are things you can do to mitigate your footprint when you are playing sports and just try and be a little more conscious.

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

TK: I think both of those are not mutually exclusive and I think this is where a lot of people feel like even though they want to do something and even though they may do a lot of things that it doesn’t make a difference. But it does. One, it makes a difference to your community and to yourself, to there is an ethical proposition there. But also it sends a message and if we could all start to banner around this stuff, it sends a message to industry. Look at the Prius: it was so well received in the marketplace and has done so well for Toyota that it was a message that was sent by consumers. I think that is the biggest thing that we can do. To do things for ourselves that will in turn send a message to business and hopefully government will start to hear about it as well.

This interview originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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