How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?
Parts of this text was included in the UN study.
As more and more water is taken from rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers to feed fields and needs of industry and urban demands, there is often little left for aquatic ecosystems and the plants and animals they support. However, by undermining the water needs of wildlife, we are threatening the human prospect as well. Nearly 70% of water used worldwide goes to agriculture. Large areas of cropland are irrigated to make them agriculturally viable and to increase and improve yields. Much of this land is wasted by being used to grow feed crops for livestock rather than food for people. The water used on this land – as well as that consumed directly by livestock – represents waste of resource. If food production can be directed towards more effective water usage, soil erosion and ground water pollution, as well as water demand, may be considerably decreased. The consumption of meat has risen five times from 1950 to 1999. This expansion has been twice as big as the increase in population: The people of the world has increased its meat consumption per person with 17 kilogram 1950 to 36 kilogram 1999. (Figures: FAO, In: Lester R. Brown, ”Eradicating Hunger – a Growing Challenge”, State of the World 2001, Worldwatch Institute) Hidden costs behind large scale meat production should be revealed and artificial meat prices receive their real price: Much water is used to cultivate feed crops for large scale animal food production, creating ground water pollution as well as green house gas. The most cost–effective way to increase water productivity in agriculture is by directing government subsidies away from meat production towards plant based food production.
To meet the demands of an increasing human population, we have to produce more food with less water. One way to make this possible is to promote plant based food production - as the amount of water wasted in meat production could be used to produce food for humans directly. With the agricultural sector using up to 70 percent of all freshwater, agricultural methods is an interesting focus. Are there ways to produce nutritious food with less water? It seems the most cost–effective way to reduce water demand is by directing government subsidies away from meat production towards plant based food production. Globally 70 procent of all the water directed from rivers or pumped up from groundwater reservoirs is used for irrigation, while 20 percent is used in industry and 10 percent by households. (Lester R. Brown, ”Feeding Nine Billion”, State of the World 1999, Worldwatch Institute.) Almost 97 percent of all fresh water on earth is found in ground water. Today, ground water are being tapped on all continents and ground water has become the foremost drinking water source for more than 1,5–2billions of people around the world. The reason why ground water is used, is the dramatic increase in irrigation for agriculture since 1950. Irrigation stands for two thirds of the fresh water taken from wells and river basins every year. (Payal Sampat, ”Uncovering Ground Water Pollution”, State of the World 2001, Worldwatch Institute.)
Recent projections indicate that by 2025 many river basins and countries will face a situation in which 30 percent or more of their irrigation demands cannot reliably be met because of water shortages. (Mark W. Rosegrant, Ximing Cai, and Sarah A. Cline, World Water and Food to 2025, International Food policy Research Institute, 2002.) Today, large areas of cropland are irrigated to make them agriculturally viable and to increase and improve yields. Much of this land is wasted by being used to grow feed crops for livestock rather than food for people. Animal factories feed corn and soybeans to cows that are ruminants who digest grasses, legumes and crop residues – in order to make them gain weight quickly. For example, 95 percent of soy bean production, a nutritious vegetable protein, is consumed in animal production. (Cees de Haan et al., ”Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance,” report of a study coordinated by FAO, U.S. Agency for International Development, and World Bank, 1997). The water used on this crop land – as well as that consumed directly by livestock – represents waste of resource as large scale production of animal protein craves considerably more water per kilogram than vegetable protein. According to water expert David Pimentel, at Cornell University Ecology Department, the water costs in protein terms are as follows: required amount of water for the production of 1 kg beef, 100 000 liter. Amount required for the production of 1 kg soy protein: 2000 liter. Accordingly, the loss in liter of water used in beef production, is 98 000. (David Pimentel et al., BioScience Vol 47, No 2, February, 1997; David Pimentel and Marcia Pimentel eds. Food, Energy, and Society, University Press of Colorado, 1996.) In a more recent study by researchers Daniel Renault and Wes Wallender, discussed in State of the World 2004, ”Boosting Water Productivity”by Sandra Postel and Amy Vickers, the amount of nutrition is put in relation to water use which gives a ’measure of nutritional water productivity’, i. e. how much nutritional value is derived from each unit of water consumed. Using crop water requirements and yields for California, researchers Daniel Renault and Wes Wallender estimated nutritional water productivity for principal crops and food products. The results: It takes five times more water to supply 10 grams of protein from beef than from rice, and nearly 20 times more water to supply 500 calories from beef than from rice. Postel and Vickers conclude: ”Raising the producitivity of agricultural water use is critical to meeting people’s food needs as water stress deepens and spreads.” (p 51) And: ”With its high meat content, the average US diet requires 5.4 cubic meters of water per person per day – twice as much as an equally (or more) nutritious vegetarian diet. Even a partial shift away from animal products would make a large difference. For example, cutting the intake of animal products by half and replacing them with highly nutritious vegetable products would reduce the water intensity of the US diet by 37 percent. (p 54) (D. Renault and W.W. Wallender, ”Nutritional Water productivity and Diets”, Agricultural Water Management, August 2000, pp 275–96.)
Today there is a rebundance of food stuffs, and more food is available for more people than ever. Still, a larger portion of the world’s population than ever before in human history, is malnourished. People starve, suffer from vitamin deficiences, eat to much or eat the wrong things. For governments, organizations, and private enterprises, to focus on nutritious food production from a water shortage perspective could create several beneficial side effects for all. A research project by Harvard School of Public Health and Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust found traditional diets associated with good health and long life expectancy usually being based on plants – rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruit and nuts – with a smaller addition of animal products. (Corinne Cataldo et al., Nutrition and Diet Therapy: Principles and Practices, 1999; www.oldwayspt.com, In: Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, ”Nourishing the Underfed and Overfed”, State of the World 2000, Worldwatch Insititute, p 74.) Conversely, for humans eating animal products high in saturated fat and cholestorol is linked to cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses (Neil Barnard and Andrew Nicholson and Jo Lil Howard, ”The Medical Costs Attributed to Meat Consumption,” Preventive Medicine, November 1995.)
Recent surveys from Germany, the US, and the United Kingdom estimate that people pay billions of dollars each year to clean up the pollution and cope with the other costs associated with modern farming: from removing pesticides from drinking water to repairing the damage from soil erosion to the loss of birds and other wildlife. (J.N. Pretty et al., ”An Assessment of the Total External Costs of UK Agriculture,” Agricultural Systems, August 2000, pp 113-36, and from Jules Pretty et al., ”Policy Challenges and Priorities for Internalising the Externalities of Modern Agriculture,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, March 2001, pp. 263-83, in Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg ,”Watching what we eat”, State of the World 2004, Worldwatch Institute, p 72, footnote 11). A plant based food production would help decreasing the problem of pollution of ground water, and fresh water. Intensive animal food production means that animal excreta containing high levels of nitrate leaks into ground water or nearby surface water. The waste produced by thousands of animals in confinement facilities usually exceeds the amount of land available to handle it. Manure that in smaller amounts can be a valuable agricultural resource turns into being a toxic waste. Manure contains nitrates, which at high concentrations can cause methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), cancer, and algal blooms and eutrophication of surface waters. (Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg, ”Watching what we eat”, State of the World 2004, p 74.) As for the consumers’ waste through the sewage systems, a Swedish study has shown that the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of the water of the city of Stockholm would be decreased by one third if its inhabitants would lower their intake of animal food stuffs by 50 percent. (Fredrik Burström et al, ”Stockholm – kväve och fosfor i storstaden”, Stockholms Stad and Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan, KET–IM; 1998:4.) Belching, flatulent livestock, suffering from eating soy beans and corn instead of roaming around digesting grass, emit 16 percent of the world’s annual production of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. (Cees de Haan et al., ”Livestock and the Environment: Finding a Balance,” report of a study coordinated by FAO, U.S. Agency for International Development, and World Bank, Brussels, 1997.)
The production of animal protein also contributes indirectly to global warming via the felling of forests to provide land to grow food for cattle, resulting in fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide. The benefits from decreasing agricultural water demand by shifting food policies, are not to be underestimated: Greater possibilities of feeding the world’s increasing human population, reduced figures of heart disease (as well as other diseases due to consumption of animal fat), less cruelty to animals, less pollution of streams and bays as well as ground water from industrial animal feedlots, less emission of green house gas, less erosion - and decreased risk for conflicts over water as well as decreased governmental spending. According to Postel and Vicker: ”Worldwide, ensuring a healthy diet for all people in the face of growing water scarcity will require adjustments at both the high and low ends of the diet spectrum. The nearly 1 billion people who are malnourished need to eat more in order to live healthy lives. Expanding access to minimum levels of irrigation water can help achieve this goal. More equitably sharing the water embodied in food, through trade and aid, will also be important. And the sensible dietary shift just described for the US population [”…cutting the intake of animal products in half and replacing them with highly nutritious vegetable products would reduce the water intensity of the US diet by 37 percent.” p 54] would free up enough water to provide healthy diets for nearly 400 million people, nearly one quarter of the number expected to be added to the developing world’s population by 2025.” (Postel, Sandra, Vickers, Amy, ”Boosting Water Productivity”, State of the World 2004, Worldwatch Institute, pp 54–55.) The high percentage, 70 percent, for water usage in agriculture is partly due to the choice of governments to subsidize and/or not to tax the large scale production of animal protein. This policy contributes to the unfortunate development of an increasing demand for animal protein which entails increasing demand for fresh water. One crucial way to meet future water demands is to have policies reversed.
Suggestions -Governments should shift the money spent on agricultural subsidies each year – more than $ 300 billion - into support for ecological farming. -Governments should consider taxing pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, factory farms, and other polluting inputs or farm practices. (Postel, Sandra, Vickers, Amy, ”Boosting Water Productivity”, State of the World 2004, Worldwatch Institute, p 85.) -Governments should consider taxing advertisements for animal products, encouraging traditional/nutritious water effective diets, and putting the subject of nutrition and water on the high school curriculas, as well as initiate national and international nutrition campaigns.
Suggested Actions to Address this Challenge with A Range of Views
An economically benefical method for governments would be to decrease or stop subsidizing large scale meat production and instead begin taxing it, as this type of protein production demands large quantites of water, claims great land areas, risks soil erosion, and leads to pollution both by the content in the human excreta and the manure from the animals. 2.2. Improve efficiency of agricultural usage of water. 2.3. 2.4. We must send priorities and percentages for water usage and then efficiencies within these categories. Nearly 70% of water used worldwide goes to agriculture. This high percentage is partly due to the choice of governments to subsidize and/or not to tax the large scale production of animal protein (instead of promoting the production of vegetable protein). This policy contributes to the unfortunate development of an increased demand for meat in developing countries. Hidden costs behind large scale meat production should be revealed and artificial meat prices receive their real price: Much water is used to cultivate feed crops for large scale animal food production, creating ground water pollution as well as green house gas.
Indicators - Number of governments that use food production subsidies, loans and taxes to improve water productivity within agriculture
/Lisa Gålmark, M.A. in history, philosophy, author and journalist, Drottningholmsvägen 1, S – 112 42 Stockholm, SWEDEN