Photo: Mobile Irrigation System

Water resources are growing scarce in Asia and experts say the primary culprit is changing diet. Increasing adoption of a western meat-based diet requires more than four times the amount of water to produce than tofu and ten times more than rice.

Two additional trends competing for water are Asia's population growth and economic development, which are making it more difficult to meet the demands of an increasingly thirsty land. Surprisingly, the water required to meet these trends is a relatively small amount compared to the water used to raise animals for slaughter. For example, a bowl of rice, tofu and vegetables takes about 570 kilos of water to produce. That same meal with beef instead of tofu takes about 2180 kilos of water. So while population growth may be a problem, clearly the bigger problem is what people choose to eat. A plant-based diet, like the one common in Asia for centuries, is the only sustainable solution.

The authors of a study on the rising consumption of meat write, “Whether it is a good thing is not the issue; it is a phenomenon that will occur.” If the situation isn’t reversed, the Asian Development Bank has predicted that by the year 2030 Asia will lack 40% of the water it needs for food. Some scientists claim that nothing can be done. But governments and social organizations around the world agree they can't give up. Paul Reiter, executive director of the International Water Association, has compared the water crisis to a slow-moving train wreck. He hopes a gathering of 7000 policy makers in September in Busan, South Korea, will provide a platform to discuss water scarcity and solutions. Hopefully, conferees will consider the impact of diet on water supply.

The Asia Foundation says food production uses more water than any other activity. Only 6% of water in Asia is used for drinking, washing and cooking. Another 10% is used in development and industry. Meanwhile, fully 84% of all water withdrawn in Asia each year goes to agriculture. So focusing on food is actually the quickest path to solving the problem of future water supply.

According to the United Nations, it takes about 1500 liters of water to produce 1 kg of wheat, but it takes 10 times more to produce 1kg of beef! Producing feed crops for livestock, slaughtering and the processing of meat, milk and other dairy products also require large quantities of water. On average, meat production requires 2,025 liters of water for every 150 grams, while soybeans take 412 liters and fruit takes only 69 liters of water for the same amount.

Some experts look at the changing habits of 4 billion people in Asia and conclude that the rise in meat consumption cannot be stopped. However, no one is forced to eat meat. What we choose to eat is a decision that each of us makes individually. Each of us has the power within ourselves to make a difference. The good news is that no one has to learn new skills or adopt new habits. All that’s required is sticking with the traditional plant-based Asian diet, where meat is treated as a condiment rather than the main course.

Water shortages are a serious problem around the world. In the U.S. alone, nearly half of all the water used is squandered on animal agriculture. This situation is causing serious water shortages that will need to be addressed before long. At least in Asia a key solution already exists in the form of the traditional Asian plant-based diet.

What we choose to eat is one of the most significant factors in the personal impact we have on the environment and the fastest path to change. The single most important thing that an individual can do for their health and the environment—as well as to ensure future water supply—is to adopt a vegetarian diet.