Drought: A Global Crisis in Need of a Global Solution
(How Much Water Are You Eating?)
In case you haven’t heard, California is slowly running out of water. Water restrictions are starting to be imposed and more are threatened. Meanwhile, the Central Valley, where the vast majority of the state’s food is produced (and 2/3 of the Country’s fruits and nuts), is reportedly sinking at a rate never before seen as farmers desperately drill wells to capture scarce groundwater.
But, as politicians and bureaucrats scramble to find solutions and impose usage restrictions on tap water throughout the state, we have to ask: Are they looking in the wrong place? And are there some serious changes we need to make to our society to keep water from becoming a scarce resource for the planet?
The answer to this crisis may lie in the amount of water you’re eating for dinner this evening (and, yes, we said “eating”). But before we talk about a solution, let’s take a closer look at the problem.
Drought is a Global Crisis
Despite how much you’ve heard about California recently, it’s far from the only place in the world experiencing severe drought conditions.
Drought is a natural phenomenon. But over the last few decades, this phenomenon has been escalating in frequency and intensity, affecting millions of people all across the world. Drought is just one more devastating symptom of climate change.
How bad is the situation? Here are just a few examples. In Brazil drought conditions have gotten so bad that taps have run dry and the lights have gone out sporadically all across the country from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro and beyond. North Korea is facing its worst drought in a century. And late last year, the Executive Council of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), a southeastern province of South Africa, declared eight areas in a “state of disaster” due to severe drought conditions.
Back in the U.S., Lake Powel, a reservoir on the Colorado River between Utah and Arizona, is drying out and currently at only 45% of its capacity. And 40 states are anticipated to join California with water shortages, bringing this crisis close to home for the vast majority of the U.S.
The Effects are Devastating
Drought affects more people than any other natural disaster. Since 1900 more than 11 million people have died as a consequence of drought. And over two billion more have been affected. In Africa, a third of the people already live in drought-affected areas.
Here’s a startling statistic: Half of the world’s population will live in areas of high water scarcity by 2020. And drought is the single most common cause of food shortages, severely affecting food security in developing countries and jeopardizing efforts to increase food production by 70 percent by 2050 in order to feed a world population of 9 billion.
We all know that water is of major importance to all living things. Up to 60% of the human adult body is water. And while we can live for a few weeks without food (Mahatma Gandhi survived for 21 days), fluid intake has the biggest effect on our immediate survival. Our bodies tend to have several weeks worth of reserve energy from food stores, but lack of fluid causes problems with kidney function within just a few days. Some have estimated that a person will live as few as 3 days without water in hotter climates.
All of this boils down to one thing: We better get serious about water conservation in our drying environment.
Local Solutions are Band Aids; We Need a Real Shift
Michel Jarraud, Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) summed up well where we need to go in terms of the mounting global drought crisis: “We have to facilitate the transition from crisis management to catastrophes prevention, like it has been successfully done for tsunamis and other natural catastrophes.”
After all, when over half the planet will be short on water in just five years, that’s a looming catastrophe. Water “management” efforts limiting lawn watering and urging shorter showers are important, but far too little to get the tremendous and immediate results we need.
To find the real answer, we have to first ask: Where does the majority of our fresh water go? The answer may surprise you … it’s agriculture. In California, a full 80% of the State’s water usage is used in the production of food, including beef and dairy. To see where the real “catastrophe prevention” can come from, we need to take a look at agricultural water usage by the numbers.
Choose Melon Over Meat
Not surprisingly, animal products like beef and pork require considerably higher amounts of water to produce than do most other types of food. Whereas a pound of lettuce takes just 15 gallons to produce, a pound of beef takes on average 1800 gallons (and can use as much as 2500-5000 gallons, depending upon where in the world it’s produced). Even more water-demanding fruits like avocados use only 220 gallons of water per pound produced, compared with 1630 gallons per pound for pork and 2044 gallons per pound for butter.
Why the huge water footprint for animal products? For beef production, for example, it’s primarily due to the tremendous amount of water needed to grow the grass and feed that a steer eats over its lifetime, plus water for drinking, cleaning and processing.
In the US, at least 80 percent of beef cattle are “conventionally” raised. This means they start out life eating grass in pasture, for typically for 12 to 14 months, but then they go to a feedlot for three to six months. There, they eat feed made from corn and soy to speed up the animal’s growth. Considering that it takes about 147 gallons of water to produce one pound of corn, and a steer can eat 1,000 pounds or more over a few months, it’s easy to see how water usage adds up. And that’s for just a single cow. The average American eats about 167 pounds of meat every year – three times the global average.
With this in mind, it becomes clear where the catastrophe prevention lies: It’s in our diets. If we all started eating more vegetables, grains and beans and eating less meat, our water usage would plummet. And it’s only with a shift like this, not just management restrictions, that we will save ourselves from disaster.
According to John Robbins’ pivotal book, “Diet for a New America,” the average daily footprint from diet of a vegan, vegetarian and meat-eater is 400, 1,200 and 4,000 gallons, respectfully. In fact, it takes the same amount of water to produce a year’s worth of food for a vegan as a month’s worth of food for a meat eater!
Go Whole, Not Processed
Diets that are made up of highly processed foods (like candy, chips and ready-made meals) also use a lot of water to produce. Potato chips, for example, take considerably more water to produce than a whole potato. After growing the potatoes, the processing takes additional water to clean potatoes and machinery, produce cooking oil for deep frying, produce the fuel for delivery, produce packaging, and so forth. The water use accumulates above and beyond what it would take to produce and eat a whole potato.
In short, the more meat, dairy and processed foods we eat, the more water we consume. Incredibly, the same diet that will save us from global water shortage crises will also save us from our mounting health crises. Think about that next time you sit down for dinner.