Innumerate Guardian Hack

Jonathan Watts in Beijing that is. And the subs in London.

Millions of gallons of water are being diverted to Beijing from areas hit by drought

Millions of gallons! Oh Noes!

Beijing is diverting millions of gallons of water to ensure this dry and dusty city looks its best during the Olympics.


Umm, just what is a million gallons? Ignore the difference between US and Imperial gallons for a moment. An acre foot is some 325,000 gallons and is the annual usage of one US suburban household (I actually thought it was two but Wikipedia says otherwise).

So a million gallons is enough for between 3 and 6 houses.

Scary scary, eh?

If they meant the next order of magntiude up, tens of millions, presumably they would have said so. So the diversion being worried about is for anything between 3 and 60 households\’ worth.

Aaaarg! We\’re all gonna die!

Thanks to a huge diversion, the Shunyi Olympic rowing park project has turned a dry river and its banks into a lush resort with a water surface of 63 hectares (155 acres) and a green area of 53 hectares.

155 acres? Let\’s say 10 ft deep, shall we? And ignore evaporation, leaks, the grass etc. That 500 million gallons just there.

So, what both the journalist and the sub editor really meant was that Beijing is diverting billions of gallons of water.

Out by three orders of magnitude at minimum.

Tens of thousands of people have been relocated for a 192-mile section of the water diversion project, which will open in April, redirecting 300m cubic metres of water from Hebei to the capital. In any year this would be a sacrifice.

Our acre foot is roughly 1,200 cubic metres so that\’s c. 250,000 acre feet or 81,250,000,000 gallons.

Or damn near 100 billion gallons.

Out by five orders of magnitude.

Now that\’s impressive, even for the Guardian.


14 thoughts on “Innumerate Guardian Hack”

  1. I think it’s Discworld trolls. They have three numbers: “one”, “two” and “many.”

    Try going through one of Polly’s pieces and substitute these for any figure. You’ll find it makes a lot more sense that way (many percent more sense, in fact).

  2. Actually, I’ve been racist. Trolls are much smarter than I gave them credit for. From “Men At Arms”:

    “In fact, trolls traditionally count like this: one, two, three . . . many, and people assume this means they can have no grasp of higher numbers. They don’t realize that many can be a number. As in: one, two, three, many, many-one, many-two, many-three, many many, many-many-one, many-many-two, many-many-three, many many many, many-many-many-one, many-many-many-two, many-many-many-three, LOTS.”

  3. 325,000 per day seems rather high. Assuming a household size of 4, this equates to roughly 560 gallons per person per day. 100 gallons per person per day is typically used when calculating requirements for private wells and such.

    Does the average include industrial and agricultural use as well?

    Tim adds: Yes, I think so, I think it’s the total water required in a water basin per household. But don’t forget, most of the US uses sprinklers, at least in summer. I once wrote a piece for a California newspaper on subsidy to reservoirs and irrigation systems and I recall them explaining one acre foot as the average usage of two California households.

  4. Yeah, I live in the US so I know about lawn sprinklers. Still, I doubt many households are using 27,000 gallons per month.

    Normally, I don’t water the grass in the summer but I was trying to sell my house last July so I watered like crazy to keep the lawn alive. My July water bill was $320 for 11,000 gallons, it’s hard to picture many people dropping $1K a month on water.

    About 75% of the people in my subdivision let the lawn go brown in the summer. Small sample, I know, but it does make me think they were averaging total US water use across the number of households.

  5. What’s an “order of magnitude”? Is it like a knighthood? Or is it like an order of nuns?

  6. “What’s an “order of magnitude”? Is it like a knighthood? Or is it like an order of nuns?”

    It’s a medal awarded to a Hero of the Left who broke ten times as many eggs as the Guardian reported.

  7. So Much For Subtlety


    I create databases.

    Three numbers interest me.

    Exactly and Always One.
    More than One.


    Which one do you use to calculate your pay?

  8. “Ignore the difference between US and Imperial gallons for a moment” – and ignoring the difference between US and the “etymologically more correct” [OED] British billions …

  9. @MikeW: I thought the UK had now conceded etymological defeat and officially adopted the US form of billion?

  10. @MikeW Oh don’t go there. Once Jo Public cottoned onto kilo, mega and giga in the bytes context, the billion=giga was a certainty.

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