Ditch meat for vegetables to save water, says expert

A world authority in water management argues the answer to our conservation fears may lie with what we choose to put on our dinner plate.

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DUBAI // A key to the conservation of our increasingly precious resources of water lies on the dinner table, according to one of the world's authorities on the subject.

That means the consumption of more vegetables and less meat, said Professor John Anthony Allan, an expert on water management and the politics of water in the Middle East.

"We need to get people to eat sensibly," said Prof Allan, who will speak tonight in Dubai at a lecture organised by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) - University of London.

Prof Allan, who teaches at SOAS and King's College London, pioneered the concept of virtual water, which involves measuring the amount that goes into the production of food and consumer products.

During his speech, he will try to persuade the audience to consider the water footprint of the foods they consume and suggest ways for governments in the Gulf, considered one of the world's most water-scarce regions, to address the issue.

People often think about how much water is needed for domestic purposes, such as bathing, washing clothes or gardening. But the water necessary to produce food dwarfs all other uses, with agriculture taking between 80 to 90 per cent of water resources in the world.

"The majority of water we need as a national economy is in the food we eat," Prof Allan said.

The situation is not sustainable. Food production would have to ramp up by 40 per cent to provide for the world population, if it jumps by two billion to nine billion in 2050 as has been forecast, he estimates.

Researchers are divided on whether there will be enough water to sustain that level, Prof Allan said. Some "pessimists" predict the answer is no, particularly with "worrying signs" such as China's Yellow River and The Nile drying up. Prof Allan is not among them, although there are conditions for his optimism.

Providing more food preferably with less water is part of the solution. But there is also a solution of demand, which requires people to eat more sensibly.

"But I would recognise that it is politically very challenging," Prof Allan said.

Politicians in the developed western world find it hard to raise, let alone implement, measures that would change people's eating habits in a way that could have a meaningful impact on reducing water needs in food production.

The average US resident, for example, is a meat eater who consumes about five cubic metres of water a day through their food. A vegetarian would require half that amount.

"My mantra now is 'down from five to 2.5'," Prof Allan said.

While not everyone can be vegetarian, he said, if people in rich countries focused on eating less water intensive foods, there would be more available to grow food for an expanding world population.

Beef requires 15,500 litres of water per kilogram compared with chicken, which needs 3,900 litres per kilogram.

In 2008, Prof Allan was awarded one of the sector's most prestigious accolades, the Stockholm Water Prize, for his work on virtual water as well as research on how the global trade in food translates into an unofficial trade in water, at a rate of about 15 per cent of all that is available.

This is beneficial to arid countries such as the UAE, which imports most of its food because there is little in the way of water. Prof Allan said situations such as the UAE's prove that "water security has nothing to do with having water".

"What you need is a highly educated, highly evolved population and a strong economy," he said.

For now the process lies in the hands of private individuals such as farmers and consumers, and businesses. Prof Allan argues that when it comes to water, governments need to be involved - and co-operating - in the strategic oversight of the entire system.

"The market is not geared to do this," he said. "In the 19th century, it got labour wrong. In the 20th century, it got the environment wrong. Market systems are beginning to make a contribution but mainly because corporations are worried about their reputations.

"What we need is consensus on the international level."

Tonight's talk at the Dubai International Financial Centre conference hall is the first of a series of lectures organised by SOAS in the UAE. The event starts at 6pm.