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The water we eat and why diet choices matter for water conservation.

1 out of 7 people globally, have inadequate access to water today. Food accounts for 92% of our daily water consumption. Meat & dairy products are more than 10x less inefficient than plant based foods, yet use up 36% of global freshwater.

Global water challenges

While 70% of the world's surface is covered by water, only a mere 2.5% of global water is fresh water (of which 70% is locked up in glaciers, permanent snow & ice and the atmosphere). A mere 0.75% of global water that is suitable for human activities1.

As economies, populations, incomes and consumption continue to grow, water problems being faced today are only likely to worsen going forward. The following is just a short snap-shot of the scale of water problems facing humanity:

Risk of human induced water erosion

Most of the world's most populated regions, including India, China, Europe and parts of America, Africa and Latin America are at very high risk of water erosion(Source: USDA).

Global water challenges

  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world's population could be living under water stressed conditions2
  • 1.1 bn people in developing countries have inadequate access to water today (i.e.1 in 7 people)3
  • 6.2 mn deaths every year (i.e. 17,000 deaths every day) due to water, sanitation & hygiene issues related to water problems. 30% of these deaths are children and 78% occur in developing countries4
  • 12% of global population uses 85% of its water5
 

Livestock's impact on water resources

The livestock industry is extremely water intensive.

As per the United Nations1, the livestock industry accounts for

  • 45% of the freshwater used by the agricultural sector
  • 32% of global usable freshwater water resources (only for feedstock production)
  • 36% of global usable freshwater resources (including direct water consumption by animals)

In addition to using up a large majority of freshwater resources available to man, the industry is also the largest source of water pollution and depletion. The following are some of the leading issues related to the livestock industry:

Waste discharge into water: Intensive animal farming leads to large amounts of waste manure being created. These are often discharged into waterways, contributing to significant pollution.

Nitrogen and Phosphorous: The Livestock industry accounts for 32-33% of all nitrogen and phosphorous found in freshwater globally1. Usage of fertilisers in agriculture, leads to water getting contaminated with nitrogen and phosphorous. 70% of agricultural land is used to grow animal feedstock.

Land conversion: Land conversion heavily influences the water cycle. The livestock sector is responsible for converting large areas of pasture into land used to grow feedcrops and for clear-cutting forests to make way for feedcrops. While very difficult to measure, this can lead to changes in global waterfall patterns and the resulting very damaging impacts on global freshwater availability.

Soil erosion: The livestock industry accounts for an estimated 55% of soil erosion globally1. This occurs both due to the hoof & grazing impact on pastures, as well as deforestation for feed production, which cause soil erosion. Each year, soil erosion sends 25 billion tons of sediments into waterways (the natural replacement of which takes hundreds of years).

Other contaminants in water: Other sources of water contamination through the livestock industry include the large number of bacteria (such as Salmonella and e-coli), viruses and parasites that infect our waterways due to animal discharges. Drug residues (especially antibiotics and hormones) also lead to further contamination of our freshwater reserves.

Virtual water / Water footprint

'Virtual Water' or 'Water Footprint' is a rapidly growing concept.  which measures the total volume of freshwater used to produce a product. Extensive research undertaken by the Water Footprint Network has made it possible to get relatively accurate estimates of the water footprint in individual products, which is of invaluable use for policy makers & consumers in deciding on how to allocate this precious natural resource.

A study into the Water Footprint of various products consumed in our daily lives, throw up some very interesting and unexpected results:

Water footprint of food products

  • Our direct water consumption is 137 liters per day (i.e. water used for bathing, toilets, laundry, cooking & drinking and cleaning), and our water footprint due to products we use is 167 litres (such as clothing, appliances etc). However, both of these pale in comparison to the water footprint of our food – 3496 litres per day.
  • Food accounts for 92% of the total water used in our daily lives. If we have to solve water issues globally, it is critical to look into our food habits and understand ways to reduce the very high levels of water footprints in our diet.
  • Most animal products have a significantly higher water footprint, than plant based products, even when adjusted for calories, proteins and fat. The Water Footprint Network states – "From a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products."

While it is known that animal products have a significantly higher water footprint than plant based products, the actual extent of the difference is something which would surprise most people.The graphs below provide a short glimpse into the significant water savings consumers and societies can achieve, just by reducing consumption of meat & dairy products in favour of plant products.

Water foodprint of common food items

Meat & dairy products are significantly more water intensive than plant based foods. With 92% of our water consumption linked to food, a shift to a vegan diet is the single largest lifestyle change that an individual can make to help protect global water resources. (Source: waterfootprint.org)
References: 

1 - UN FAO, Livestocks Long Shadow
2 - UN Department of Economic & Social Affairs - Water Scarcity
3 - UN Human Development Report 2006
4 - WHO - Safer Water, Better Health
5 - Globalissues.org - Water & Development