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Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) Minister Nomvula Mokonyane kicked off National Water Week recently by stating: “As government we are very concerned about this situation and we are making a call to all South Africans to adapt their lives and face the reality that water is a scarce resource that has no substitute.” Today, as we recognise World Water Day to inspire action on water issues, we cannot forget the tremendous toll that our eating habits take on our water systems. This is particularly pertinent in South Africa, as we face our “worst drought in years.”

According to the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, the demand for water is already outstripped in Gauteng since 2013, and will be in the whole of South Africa by 2025. 60% of water supply is used for agricultural use (including irrigation), 18% for environmental use, 11,5% for urban and domestic use, and 10,5% for mining and industrial use.Globally, more than 77 billion land animals were raised for food in 2013 alone, resulting in far-reaching environmental impacts. Animal agriculture is a key contributor to climate change, deforestation, water pollution and water use.

On climate change, the sector accounts for approximately 15 percent of global, human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Climate-changing gases are released into the atmosphere at nearly every stage of meat, egg, and milk production – potentially disrupting weather, temperature, and ecosystem health.

Says Tozie Zokufa, program manager for HSI (Humane Society International) South Africa: “However, farm animal production has impacts far beyond climate change. Animal agriculture uses significant amounts of the water supply available to humans globally. Raising animals for food requires substantially greater quantities of water than raising plants for human consumption.”

He adds: “Raising animals for food contributes to water scarcity in numerous ways. Farm animals require water for hydration. But an increasing amount is needed – particularly at industrial operations – to clean enclosures (e.g. cages, stalls, pens) and sheds, to dispose of waste, and for cooling animals. Processing animal products also requires large volumes of water and can result in significant amounts of wastewater. Meat, egg, and milk production are not narrowly focused on the rearing and slaughtering of farm animals. The animal agriculture sector also encompasses feed grain production, which requires substantial inputs of water, land, and energy. The growth in farm animal production is projected to increase strain on water resources, particularly due to the high water demands involved in growing animal feed.”

The result is that animal products generally have larger water footprints than non-animal products. For example, it takes nearly 50 times more water per kilogram to produce beef, and over 10 times more for chicken and eggs, than for vegetables.

Not only are water supplies shrinking, the farm animal sector is increasingly polluting the available water. According to the FAO, “The livestock sector is probably the largest sectoral source of water pollution, contributing to eutrophication, ‘dead’ zones in coastal areas, degradation of coral reefs, human health problems, emergence of antibiotic resistance and many others.”

So, as the country is facing continued droughts heading into winter, we should seriously consider our diet’s role in water issues. Mitigating the serious problems requires immediate and far-reaching changes in current animal agriculture practices and consumption patterns. Each one of us can decrease our environmental footprint by reducing our consumption of meat, egg, and milk products. Joining the movement to support Green Monday SA and sharing with our friends is the best way to ring in World Water Day 2016.

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