Cutting back on meat can help save water

The world is getting hotter. The gap between the need and availability of freshwater is widening every day.

Despite finding ourselves in such a situation, we continue to propagate practices that waste trillions of litres of water every day. One of these, which I have been focusing on, is the humungous wastage of water in the meat industry. I have given you the statistics of the water that goes into the production of beef and poultry. Now come to pork.

Pigs need vast amounts of water to drink and wallow in. The average water footprint of pig meat globally is 5,988 litres/kg, meaning that much water is used to produce 1 kilo of pork on our plates. The production of pork uses five to twenty times more water than the production of grains and cereals (1500-2000 litres/kg), potatoes (387 litres/kg) and tomatoes (214 litres/kg).

Despite this, pork production is being increased in India. As per statistics of the Indian Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fishing, the production of pork in India has increased by 21% (81,250 tonnes) between 2015-16 and 2016-17. In 2017, an estimated 1.2 crore pigs were slaughtered in India. The import of pork has also been increasing annually by about 11% since 2010.

More Indian producers have adopted the western industrial method of animal production. This is the format of more animals, faster growth and shorter meat-to-market time. Large numbers of animals are bred in one facility, where they are fed grains and pumped with growth promoters, before being slaughtered for their meat. These industrial systems use more water than traditional grazing systems, thus increasing the stress on local water resources.

An increasing number of live pigs are being imported into India, as they are larger than local pigs and produce more meat. These pigs can weigh up to 300 kgs and yield about 180 kgs of pork per animal. If the average global water footprint of pork is 5,988 litres/kg, it takes about 10-11 lakh litres of water to raise a single such pig for its meat.

The largest proportion of water, about 67% or 7 lakh litres, is spent in growing food for breeding one pig. Pigs have a high feed conversion ratio, which is the amount of food needed by the animal in order to be ready for killing. Pigs are generally given concentrated feed, which again takes a particularly large amount of water and land to produce.

On-farm water use in piggeries is estimated at 33% of the total water footprint, or about 3.5 lakh litres per pig. Pigs drink an average of 25 litres of water a day, depending on the weather and their size. Pigs require upto 75 litres of water per day for drinking and washing down. This requirement goes up even more if the pig is diseased, the feed is insufficient, the sow is lactating, or if the environmental temperature is high.

Water is also used in maintaining the farms and cages where pigs are kept in preparation for slaughter. As part of the slaughter process, pigs are usually stunned electrically, then cut to bleed to death, after which they are scalded in large amounts of extremely hot water to remove their hair and skin.

After scalding, the animals are immediately chilled to maintain the quality of their meat, which also involves large amounts of water. The removal of internal organs again requires water for cleaning purposes, as does the cutting stage. This combined ‘service water’ use is estimated to be about 85,000 litres per pig. More water is used in post-farm activities, which include the stages of pork processing, packaging, distribution and consumer use.

Apart from direct use, it is important to recognize that the production of pigs, right from the feed growing stage till their packaging, pollutes innumerable litres of water with fertilizers, antibiotics, organic and inorganic matter from the pig farm and so on. Not enough care is given to the treatment and disposal of water from piggeries to help reduce the water pollution in the surrounding area. This water pollution is included in the total water footprint of pork.

What you are eating is not pork chops but vast amounts of water. While I cannot convince everybody to turn vegan, I think it’s only fair for each of us to consider just how much meat we consume every day, and how much we could cut down on. Even one less pork chop, can save more than 900 litres of water.

Let us learn from Cape Town.

Cape Town in South Africa is a rich city of 4.5 million people. It has run out of water. Severe restrictions have been put on every resident. From February 2018 not more than 50 litres, for bathing, eating, washing etc, is allowed per person. Water for flushing, showers, gardens, carwashes, are banned. On June 4th 2018, or Day Zero, all municipal water will stop and be rerouted to 149 emergency pickup points, and people will have to queue for 25 litres every day. Water supply will only be maintained in hospitals.

Cape Town is a test case for what happens when climate change, extreme inequality, and political dysfunction collide. It is a forerunner for the cities of India.

Cape Town has highways, shopping malls, restaurants, slaughterhouses, high-rises. As the water diminished, no attempt was made to stop the large water guzzlers – the meat production industry, the bottled water/cola manufacturers. Cape Town’s water comes from six dams. Rainfall patterns have changed due to global warming. Most of the dams are now in desertified areas. Theewaterskloof Dam, the biggest feeder, is currently at 12.5 percent of its capacity.

By February 2018 the agricultural sector has incurred R14 billion (US$1.17 billion) in losses due to water shortage. Capetown farms, which contribute 23 per cent of South Africa’s agricultural output and are the main employer in rural areas, are closing down orchards, fields and vineyards. Livestock herds have been slaughtered, fruit trees felled. So far 37,000 jobs have gone, and an estimated 50,000 have been pushed below the poverty line due to job losses, and inflation due to increases in the price of food. 

Tourism is in sharp decline. Businesses are relocating, so other jobs are disappearing. Families that can, are leaving the city. A breakdown in the sanitary system is leading to an outbreak of disease and civil unrest. The army has been put on alert.

Is this the first time that a large modern city has run out of water? In 2008 Barcelona came close. Sao Paulo, the large city in the Western hemisphere is almost there, three years ago supplies ran so low that  the pipes sucked up mud and the flow of water to homes was cut to twice a week The government of Indonesia is considering evacuation of parts of Jakarta, which has run out of potable water. Melbourne, in Australia, says its water could run out in a decade – and even London has warned that demand is close to capacity and the city faces future supply problems. Military strategists talk of water, not oil, as the potential trigger for 21st Century conflicts, while the United Nations has warned water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030.

The Earth has run out of miracles where water is concerned. It is time for politicians and administrators to take stock of how much water we have and when will the Earth come to Ground Zero. I predict ten years. In India, Hyderabad will be the first.

While policy changes will happen only when we reach crisis point, it is our personal choices that can have the most significant and immediate impact. Water is life. You mustn’t play with water. Cutting back on meat is the first solution.

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi
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*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*