THE WATER WE EAT

We need to consider our Water Footprint while we eat, if we want to overcome droughts.

After three consecutive years of intense drought, the dams of Cape Town are empty and the big city, with its four million inhabitants, is preparing to run out of water in April and to become the first metropolis in the world to experience the so called “DAY ZERO WATER”.

Most of the dams around Cape Town are empty. Here, the historic Molteno Dam.

The city management and government have been criticized for not addressing both drought and increase in population in the Mother City in the last decade and for not upgrading infrastructures to the demand; the municipality has only implemented different levels of water restrictions for the past three years and these restrictions have become quite severe in the last 12 months, allowing each inhabitant a maximum daily usage of 78 and then 50 liters per person, including the water used to wash, shower and flush the toilet.

The drought is an event that cyclically affects areas in most of Africa and elsewhere, so it is important to see how a big city and its surroundings utilize fresh water and where most of the fresh water goes. In a few words, what is a city’s Water Footprint and what is the volume of freshwater used directly and indirectly throughout the entire production process of the goods we citizens choose to buy and use on a daily base.

Scientists and Professors in Water management and in Natural and Agricultural Sciences as, for example, Arjen Hoekstra, University of Twente, The Netherlands, and Ashok Chapagain, University of Free State, South Africa, agree that it’s what we put on our plate that has the major impact on the quantity of water we use. In fact, we only drink on average about two liters of water every day, but we “consume”, indirectly, about 8,000 liters to produce our daily food. The food we eat and all the “virtual water” needed to produce it, makes up for more than 2/3 of our total Water Footprint. It seems pretty obvious when you really think about it: crops can’t grow without water and cattle can`t survive without graze and pasture. 

“Turning off the tap while brushing our teeth”, says Prof Hoekstra, “is surely a way to save water but this behavior will indeed have a marginal impact on the overall water consumption of an area, since it is agriculture that, worldwide, guzzles 70% of our available fresh water resources. Then there are the industries, with 22%. Household use “only” accounts for 8% and that is just because we are in a developed country; in poorer areas or in places affected by drought or water shortage, 95% of consumption goes on food production, mostly for cattle.”

Even in areas affected by drought, most of the water is used for irrigation to grow cattle feeding, when even recycled or harvested water could be used in different ways.

These considerations are, therefore, not only appropriate locally; fresh water is becoming a limited resource worldwide and we better start addressing the issue from the right prospective, if we want to avoid cities to run dry.

Different food uses different amounts of “virtual water”. It is very easy to analyze which are the “good” and the “bad” foods, in terms of Water Footprint. In the picture below, a list of foods and the impact their production has on water resources.

The Water Footprint Food Chart. Click on the image to enlarge

Meat production, in particular beef but also farmed fish, other meats and dairy, require the biggest amounts of fresh water. If you take into account all the water used during the various phases of the production, from the irrigation for growing cattle feeding, to the maintenance and transport of food and animals, to the slaughter and processing of the meat, you will realize that by the time a 400 grams T-bone steak finishes onto your plate, it has “costed” 6200 l of fresh water.

A slaughterhouse employee. All phases of meat and fish production imply a huge amount of water, especially the evisceration and the scalding.   

At a barbeque with friends,” says Stef Falcon, Director of Future4Wildlife.org,  our personal Water Footprint is going to be about 9000 liters of fresh water per person, which is, here in Cape Town, the current consumption of a family of 6 for a whole month. If a toilet flush needs 7 liters of freshwater and a barbeque 9.000 per person, you can easily see where the problem lies. A meat-centred culture does not help. Choosing a limited meat consumption, or even eliminating it completely in favour of different proteins becomes, then, a priority in order to save our fresh water and overcome droughts.”

       

Despite technology, fresh and harvested water consumption in agriculture remain the major issue in our Water Footprint

The US are already addressing the impact of cattle farming with its pollution and its Water Footprint. Markets are rapidly adjusting and converting to accommodate the growing demand for plant-based products and foods. At the same time, many celebrities as Leonardo di Caprio, Sir Richard Branson and Bill Gates are increasingly getting more involved and are choosing to put their money into investing for a more plant-based industry worldwide.

Maybe it’s time to consider water scarcity on a global prospective and to make an effort in changing our culinary habits towards food that does not consume all our water.