All the water that will ever be, is right now. - National Geographic, October 1993
- 70% of the world's surface is covered by water
- 97.5% of that is salt water
- Only 2.5% is freshwater
- Almost 68.7% of fresh water is frozen in ice caps and glaciers
- Only 1% of the total water resources on earth are available for human use
- Groundwater represents about 90% of the world’s readily available freshwater resources
- Some 1.5 billion people depend upon groundwater for their drinking water
- Today, 450 million people in 29 countries suffer from water shortages
- 20% of the global population lacks access to safe drinking water
- Half of the world's hospital beds are filled with people suffering from a water-related disease.
As a rising population puts ever increasing demands on the world’s limited supply, water scarcity is a growing concern. All factors considered, estimates are that by 2030, there will likely be an average of 40% gap between demand and supply of fresh water. This figure ranges from 17% in South Africa and 23% in Mexico to 50% in India. The cost and effort to build or even maintain access to water will also increase.
It is accepted among scientists and governments that we are fast approaching a world in which water is becoming the new oil. Increasingly, political and social stability relies heavily on a countries water status. Take India and Pakistan for example. At this moment, Pakistan is moving from being “water-stressed” to a more critical “water-scarce”. Around 60 years ago, roughly 5,000 cubic metres of water per year was supplied to each person. Now, there is only 1,000 cubic metres per year for each person, plunging by 75% to the same level as water-parched Ethiopia.
Due to increased demand and a dwindling supply, Pakistan holds just 30 days worth of water in case of an emergency, which is far less than the recommended 1000 day supply for countries with similar climates. Neighboring India itself is projected to become "water-stressed" by 2025 (when Pakistan is predicted to have 33% less water than it will need at that time) and "water-scarce" by 2050. Currently, India has just 120 days of stored fresh water in case of an emergency. Tensions are high as Pakistan holds India responsible for its grave predicament. Pakistan’s state minister for water and power recently blamed the country's water shortage on India for having constructed dams and hydropower projects on rivers that flow between the two countries.
Coca-cola has not helped India’s predicament with its 52 huge bottling factories located in different areas of the country (there are 900 world wide). It takes around 2.36 litres of water to make a litre of Coca-Cola and for bottled water it takes between 3-7 times the amount of water that you purchase. In his book Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About it, author Robert Glennon states the biggest misuse of water is the excessive pumping of groundwater. This is exactly how Coca-Cola acquires the water to produce their products.
One of the most notable cases involved the 40-acre Coca-Cola plant in Kerala, southern India. Although illegal, Coca-Cola extracted 510,000 litres per day to bottle their products being sent overseas. The local village went from producing more than 50 sacks of rice and 1,500 coconuts a year to barely five sacks of rice and about 200 coconuts. The state's high court ordered the company to close its boreholes and stop drawing ground water.
A study financed by Coca-Cola found that the Kala Dera bottling plant was not sustainable and recommended that Coca-Cola shut down or relocate the factory because continued operations "would continue to be one of the contributors to a worsening water situation and a source of stress to the communities around." Coca-Cola has ignored the recommendations of the study, and not surprisingly, groundwater levels have continued plummeting.
Similar stories are found in In Mehdigani, where water levels have dropped by as much as 40 feet, leaving families and farmers without enough water to meet their basic needs. Nestle and Pepsi are also lowering water tables in both India and Pakistan. As a champion of unsustainable use of water globally, it is ironic and questionable that the Coca-Cola Company is one of the leading sponsors of the World Water Forum; an important international meeting aimed at alleviating the water crisis in the world…but that’s a story for another day.
So how does this influence my food choices so far? In a world where 1 of 5 people do not have access to fresh water, it is indeed laughable that any company could extract such large amounts of life sustaining water, and convert the vast majority of that freshwater into wastewater…for a product that we as humans do not need and is in essence one of the leading reasons for our deteriorating health. So for me personally, this one is easy. I choose carefully, making sure I’m not supporting in any way Pepsi, Coca-Cola or Nestle (they own a LOT of brands combined). Done. No compromises. Do I feel like I’m missing out? It doesn't even cross my mind. So, no.
This year's drought was one of New Zealand's most extreme and the worst in nearly 70 years. It was also one of the most widespread.
Previous severe droughts had occurred in El Nino years however this latest drought was different, being related to persistent high pressure centres over New Zealand during summer. This is a trend that is increasing according to century-long records. Climate change and increases in water use beyond the capacity of the environment to supply, have led to what are called "demand-driven droughts".
NIWA (New Zealand provider of atmospheric and aquatic science) explains that if you currently spend 5-10% of the year in drought (as many regions in NZ do), by 2040 you might expect to spend as much as 20% of the year in drought. Between 2070 and 2090, that overall trend will intensify to the point where most of the country (with the likely exception of the West Coast of the South Island) will experience more time in drought.
Australia’s millennium drought began in 1995 and continued Australia wide until late 2009 with the final areas in drought ceasing in May 2012. This year however, reports say Australia is set to see their worst drought thanks to intensifying El Nino.
Yes, we also have massive rainstorms and flooding, but this doesn't translate into clean drinking water unfortunately:
“When a region is inundated with excess amounts of water, causing a flood, there are detrimental effects on our water supplies. The excess amounts of water seep into the ground. Once the ground is saturated with water, any more water that falls, flows off the surface of the ground. This is bad because beneath the ground there are natural aquifers that filter the water, and then expel it into a water source; either a ground water source or a surface water source.
These aquifers naturally filter the water, and without the water passing through them, it is left to gather contaminants from the surface. The main contaminants that cause illnesses are pesticides, other industrial by-products and feces. These run off the surface of the land and into water supplies, contaminating what would otherwise be drinkable water.” - Sureaqua.com
Water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. So where does all the water go? Knowing this gives the best idea of which area of our life we can have the biggest impact on reducing water consumption.
In the US, animal agriculture accounts for nearly 70% of all freshwater used every year, using about 1.8 billion gallons per day. 75% of that is used to irrigate crops to feed the animals raised for food. According to a Cornell University study, 253 million tons of grain are fed to these animals in the US every year, requiring a total of 66 trillion gallons of water to produce.
The top five biggest average daily users of water are the U.S., Australia, Italy, Japan, and Mexico.
In the developed world, it takes between 3,500 - 5,000 litres of water to produce one person's food for a day. Here's a look at some common foods we eat and their water requirements:
Beef 1kg 15,500
Sheep 1kg 5,538
Millet 1kg 5,000
Cheese 1kg 5,000
Pork 1kg 4,800
Olives 1kg 4,400
Chicken 1kg 3,900
Rice 1kg 3,400
Dates 1kg 3,000
Sorghum 1kg 2,800
Quarter Pounder Burger 2,500
Eggs 12 2,400
Soy 1kg 1,600
Mango 1kg 1,600
Barley 1kg 1,500
Sugar 1kg 1,500
Bread 1kg 1,300
Peach 1kg 1,200
Nectarine 1kg 1,200
Wheat 1kg 1,000
Goat 1kg 960
Bananas 1kg 860
Avocado 1kg 832
Corn 1kg 818
Apples 1kg 700
Pears 1kg 700
Oranges 1kg 460
Coffee 250ml 280
Milk 250ml 250
Potato 1kg 250
Cucumber 1kg 240
Pumpkin 1kg 240
Cabbage 1kg 200
Tomato 1kg 180
Lettuce 1kg 140
Tea 250ml 30
Animal-based foods are big players when it comes to the champions of wasting water and plant-based foods are huge water consumption bargains by comparison. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One study found that on average a vegan, a person who doesn't eat meat or dairy, indirectly consumes nearly 2,400 litres of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet (note that the Australian and New Zealand diets are grossly similar the the standard american diet).
Here is what I think needs to happen - it's not that hard (of course, any change in the right direction is good change):
- Eat no meat or less meat. Especially beef. (Don't worry, you won't die...especially not of a protein deficiency).
- If you are going to eat meat, make it wild meat. Or eat something that doesn't have as large of a "water footprint" - perhaps goat rather than beef.
- If you are going to eat meat, buy it from your local farmer rather than the supermarket. Small farms are more water efficient than large scale operations.
- Same goes for fruit and vegetables.
- Don’t buy caged chicken, pigs or any other animals. They waste more water than any other type of food.
- Don't drink soda or buy bottled water. Get a reusable bottle and have it on hand to refill.
- Skip the cheese and dairy products.
- Don't eat processed food.
- Think about your food miles. The further your food has traveled, the more water is embedded into your food.
- Eat more vegetables.
For me, this information is one of a handful of major factors I consider when choosing what to eat. I would estimate that around 70% of my diet is fruits and vegetables with the rest being made up from grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. While this may be considered extreme by some looking from afar hopefully this information on water gives insight and shows that there is a method to this “madness”.
Vitrual Water is an award winning app that you can use to track your virtual water content.