In The News

Eating the Last Drop: Changing Diets in Asia Challenge Future Water Security

March 21, 2012

A bowl of rice, vegetables, and tofu is a meal that has been eaten for hundreds of years throughout Asia. It is a meal that requires approximately 571.5 liters of water to produce. And, it is a meal that is, slowly but surely, being replaced. Throughout the region, people are increasingly filling their bowls with meat and their glasses with milk. And this small change, multiplied by billions of eaters, has large implications for Asia’s future water consumption. That same meal, substituting beef for tofu, requires 2,183.5 liters of water to produce.

Rice mill in Cambodia

Once Asia's main food staple, rice consumption is declining, while meat and dairy consumption is rising dramatically. Photo by Karl Grobl.

Asia has the highest annual water withdrawal of all the world’s regions. The blistering pace of both demographic and economic growth in countries such as China and India has brought with it a rapid rise in water usage, which has more than tripled in the last 50 years.

Where is this water going?  Overwhelmingly, Asia’s freshwater is being turned into food. A modest 10 percent is used to fuel the region’s booming industry; and a mere 6 percent is put to domestic use, including all drinking, washing, and cooking. The rest, almost 84 percent of all water withdrawn in Asia each year, goes to agriculture, compared to 71 percent for the world. The majority of this water goes to cultivating rice, long the region’s staff of life.

But the role of this centuries-old staple food is changing: as Asia gets richer, it is becoming less rice-reliant. As the region’s rural population shrinks, and cities and pocketbooks swell, the traditional diet of poor rural farmers is being replaced by a new diet of middle-class urbanites. Rice consumption per capita is declining, while meat and dairy consumption is rising dramatically. From 1980 to 2005, consumption of both meat and milk in East and Southeast Asia nearly quadrupled, and consumption of eggs rose almost six-fold. The trend is most striking in China, where milk consumption jumped from approximately 2 kilograms/capita/year to 23 kilograms/capita/year, and egg consumption from 3 to 20 kilograms/capita/year. And this trend is expected to continue, with Asia’s demand for meat products to reach 51 kilograms/capita/year.

This drastic change in diet is putting pressure on Asia’s already-scant water resources. It takes about 10 times as much water, approximately 15,000 liters, to produce one kilogram of beef as it does to produce one kilogram of rice, and approximately 135 liters of water to produce eggs, versus 50.5 liters to produce beans. Asia will have over 1 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, and it is projected that the region’s food and feed demand will double in the next 40 years. In order to meet projected dietary demands, South Asia would require 57 percent more water for irrigated agriculture, and East Asia 70 percent more, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). International experts agree this is an impossible scenario. Many areas of South and East Asia are already reaching alarming levels of water scarcity, and water demand for cities and industry is increasingly overriding water demand for agriculture.

The region, therefore, faces a formidable challenge:  the need to grow more food for more people with less water on the same amount of land.

How will the region ensure enough water to feed its growing and changing population, and overcome the increased threat to water availability due to climate change?  Clearly the solution is not for Asia simply to return to its primarily vegetarian roots; nor to halt urbanization and cap water flow to industry. The solution lies in recognizing water for what it really is – a finite, and critical natural resource – and enacting management and conservation policies accordingly.

Broadly, such measures should include:  1)  valuing water as a precious resource, while ensuring that all citizens have access to enough water for basic daily needs; 2)  improved regulation of water withdrawal to prevent water waste; 3) updating irrigation systems, many of which are outdated and inefficient; 4)  tapping into the great potential of water recycling and re-use; 5)  focusing on rainwater management; 6)  and educating citizens on water scarcity, responsible water use, and water conservation.

The above reforms are obviously not easy, nor are they new. But Asia has proven itself up to the challenge of change. In order to ensure that ever growing numbers of Asia’s population have access to the new middle class staples of meat and milk, Asia must recognize and adapt to the limits of natural resources.

Sierra Ewert is a program associate for The Asia Foundation in San Francisco. She can be reached at sewert@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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