Do we have a Looming Water Crisis?

I remember as a child being surprised at the prediction that future wars would be fought over water availability. Living in New Zealand we can feel like there is plenty of the wet stuff, but when we’re talking clean, fresh water capable of supporting life, we are in trouble.

Water PollutionDairy cow[1]

Figures released in 2013 by the Ministry for the Environment show that 60% of monitored New Zealand waterways were not fit to swim in, let alone had drinkable water. A high prevalence of dairy farms correlated with the worst water standards: Canterbury had nine waterways graded “very poor”, while Manawatu-Whanganui, Southland and Taranaki each had seven.

As NIWA* says “Pastoral farming – which accounts for 40 percent of New Zealand’s land area – is undoubtedly the main source of diffuse pollution…. Streams in dairy land are among the most polluted.”

This is in part because dairy farming in particular is pushing animals and the land to their limits, with correspondingly increasing reliance on imported feed and fertiliser. And what goes in, must come out. An individual cow produces 15 times more effluent than a human. This means that New Zealand’s cows produce the equivalent amount of manure as do 90 million people!

A report this year estimated the cost of cleaning up this dairy-related pollution at $15 billion. It’s not just dairy farming that causes a problem to our waterways; the close-to 100 million factory-farmed animals, mainly chickens and pigs, are creating a massive amount of excrement. Meanwhile our (so-called) pristine marine ecosystems such as the Marlborough Sounds are being polluted by millions of farmed salmon.

The farming lobby keep bleating on that they are cleaning up their act, but over the four years from 2008 to 2012, there were over 150 prosecutions, involving 300 charges for unlawful pollution by dairy effluent.

Even if animals are prevented from having direct access to waterways by fencing them off, it doesn’t stop the leaching of nutrients, including superphosphate fertiliser and nitrogen, in to ground water. These nutrients lead to loss of species, algal blooms and undrinkable water. Meanwhile some farmers hold waste in large ponds or lagoons that can overflow into waterways. The resulting pollution kills fish, can generate toxic algal blooms, and of course makes water undrinkable.

The residue of pesticides used to grow feed and antibiotics fed routinely to factory-farmed animals can also cause human health and environmental problems as it seeps into ground water. It doesn’t end there: many livestock diseases are waterborne, including Camplylobacter, E. Coli and Salmonella, and transmittable to people. Maybe that’s good news for the makers of bottled water, but increasingly even they are going to be struggling to find clean water to sell us.

Such is the scale of the problem that Massey University freshwater ecologist Mike Joy has said that if New Zealand’s ecosystem continues to decline at the rate it has for the past 40 years, the country will have no native fish by 2050; a situation, I for one don’t want to see.

Water consumption

The pollution of our water sources is only one aspect of the problem. Production of meat, eggs and dairy products is also highly water-intensive. The livestock sector uses one-third of the world’s freshwater.

Some of this is water the animals drink, (60-70% of an animal’s body weight is water), but there is also water utilised in cleaning equipment and holding areas, washing and cooling animals, for slaughtering, and processing the dead animals. In the slaughter of poultry, for example, 1590 litres per bird is used to wash carcasses and provide hot water scalding before feather removal, etc. 48 billion such birds are slaughtered globally; 100 million in New Zealand. Additionally the water footprint of animal products includes the water required to grow the feed the livestock consume.

A recent Dutch study compared the water footprints of soybean and equivalent animal products, finding that soy milk and soy burgers have much smaller water footprints than cow’s milk and the average beef burger. The water footprint of soy milk products analysed in the study was 28% of the water footprint of the global average for cow’s milk, while the soy burger examined had 7% of the water footprint of the average beef burger. This is despite soy, having the highest water footprint of any plant product. (In case you didn’t know, 90% of the world’s soy is grown primarily for feeding intensively farmed animals).

The water footprint of a variety of animal and plant products is compared in table 5, showing how unsustainable it is to raise livestock for food.


Table 5 – Hoekstra, A. Y., Chapagain, A. K., 2007. Waterfootprints of nations: Water use by people as a function of their consumption pattern. Water Resources Management, 21:35–48.

What is the Answer?

Already freshwater scarcity coexists with hunger and poverty. Soon countries downstream will be battling those upstream for freshwater supplies. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, for example, are raising livestock and the crops to feed them, while running their water supplies dry. (The New Zealand Government is currently using taxpayers’ money to give to a Saudi business man to breed even more sheep!). Sixty percent of Ethiopia’s population suffers from hunger and thirst, and yet their parched land is being used to support a growing herd of over 50 million cattle.

Unlike oil, where there are alternatives such as hydrogen, solar and wind, there are no alternatives to water. With climate change creating more areas of drought-prone land we need to make water conservation a priority. Moving away from animal farming will not only save animals from suffering, it is one of the key ways we can make a difference to saving water. Find out how to make the change: visit our Go Veg website.

* NIWA – National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

Marianne Macdonald has a Masters Degree in Marine Biology and is Campaign Officer for SAFE


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