Groundwater depletion is reaching potentially catastrophic proportions. The most simple and effective water-saving strategy is simply eating less meat.
‘Every day our consumption and product choices affect our ecological footprint. As scientific research on this topic develops, so does our knowledge of the impact of human activity on natural resources. A great deal of our use of natural resources is accounted for by our water-footprint. Overuse of groundwater can lead to groundwater depletion (GWD), a term often used to describe declining levels in groundwater-levels, indicating excessive and unsustainable use of groundwater. Occurrence of this phenomenon can have negative influences on wildlife habitat, land subsidence, water quality and overall environmental stability.
Especially where surface water resources, such as lakes or rivers, are scarce, excessive amounts of groundwater is being pumped to the surface to serve our hydrologic needs, primarily for irrigation. A recent study by Dr. Carole Dalin (University College London) et al. examines the use of groundwater for irrigation in relation to food production, and shows how a great part of GWD is a direct consequence of international food trade. The study looks specifically at crop productions, of which wheat, rice, maize, cotton and sugar crops use the most water. The USA, India and Pakistan alone account for two-thirds of the exports.
It goes without saying that the depletion of groundwater supplies poses a threat to the sustainability of our food production. High demand, plus an increasingly reduced supply, signal a shortage of two vital human needs: food and clean water. If we don’t act soon, groundwater supplies worldwide will be over-exploited, or at least become increasingly more expensive: the lower the groundwater levels get, the more energy it costs to pump it to the surface – which in turn, increases our ecological footprint further.
“The depletion rate is alarming – we have these clusters of countries that are at risk both from domestic production and imports. If the reserve of water runs out the price of food will be affected and it will affect almost all the world’s population,” said lead author Dr Carole Dalin to the BBC.
This is not even taking into account that since our standard of living is ever-increasing, our water ‘needs’ are increasing as well. Obviously, this is not the same for everyone. The fact that some people have swimming pools in their backyards while others cannot even overcome the water threshold for human survival is baffling in itself. Rising food and water prices due to scarcity will only widen the gap in access to these basic human needs.
So, what can be done? The report mentions some water-saving strategies like using more drought-resistant crops or developing and using more efficient irrigation systems. The research locates the areas with the most exploited groundwater resources, and this gives a pragmatic advantage to tackling the problem of water depletion. What makes this report so valuable is that this scientific research links GWD to the international food trade, and thus to consumption. Correspondingly, it puts more responsibility on the consumer to pick their products wisely and try to decrease the human ecological footprint by smart consumer choices. Co-author Yoshihide Wada (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) remarks:
“The products that consumers buy at a supermarket may have very different environmental impacts depending on where they are produced and how they are irrigated. In order to help consumers make more sustainable choices about their food, producers should consider adding water labels that make these impacts clear.”
Leave the Beef
What is striking is that the report fails to mention a simple and effective way for the consumer to reduce not only GWD, but other ecological catastrophes like the excessive release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, namely: eat less meat. A considerable amount of the groundwater consumed in the international food trade is used for the sake of cattle. Not just because animals have to drink, but because a lot of the GWD, due to watering crops, is indirectly linked to the meat industry; cattle eat crops such as wheat and grains. The ecological footprint of a piece of meat is thus a lot bigger than the ecological footprint of plant-based food. As comparison: the global average water footprint of beef is 15415 litre/kg. A bowl of rice costs approximately 2497 litre/kg.
Not only will eating less meat reduce our carbon footprint and make more sustainable use of land, it would result in a more effective use of the water and food resources still available to us. The increasing world population, as well as environmental and political causes, already pose a risk for food shortages. Especially given the recent declaration of Famine in Africa, it seems all the more pressing to make more economical use of our food and water supplies. A more sustainable diet can go a long way to reduce our ecological impact. Cutting our meat-intake will amount to more available calories per person on a global level and will decrease GWD, leaving behind a more sustainable food industry for future generations as well.
Dutch student in Humanistic Studies, specializing in ethics and political philosophy.