Only 2.5% of the world's water is freshwater.

However, almost all of it is locked up in ice or the ground. Only a tiny fraction overall is available for human use. (USGS)
 

The world’s underground aquifers are being rapidly depleted. 

Since aquifers can take thousands of years to fill up, there’s not an infinite supply of water. The situation is critical. (NASA)
 

Water is a limited resource.

"We will always have the same amount of water on the earth, but we can't always use as much as we need." (National Drought Mitigation Center)


Sec. 1

So where's all the water going?

Although most water-saving tips focus on household use, far more water is embedded in the things we buy – especially the food we eat.

Currently up to 90% of all managed water is used to grow food. (International Water Management Institute)

 

Average Person's Water Footprint

Source: Water Footprint Network's report "The Water Footprint of Humanity"
 
The real solution [to water scarcity] lies in agriculture: about 90 per cent of our global water footprint relates to food.
— Water Footprint Network founder Arjen Y. Hoekstra, PhD (creator of the water footprint concept)
 

Sec. 2

Then how do we eat to save water?

Compared to the standard Western animal-based diet, a plant-based diet saves massive amounts of water.

  • UNESCO Institute for Water Education:
    The production of a meat-based diet typically consumes twice the amount of water as compared to a plant-based diet.

  • National Geographic:
    "On average, a vegan, a person who doesn't eat meat or dairy, indirectly consumes nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet."

  • Diet change—a solution to reduce water use? (IOP Science):
    This 2014 research finds "reducing animal products in the human diet offers the potential to save water resources, up to the amount currently required to feed 1.8 billion additional people globally."

  • International Water Management Institute (IWMI):
    "Western diets, which depend largely on meat, are already putting great pressures on the environment. Meat-eaters consume the equivalent of about 5,000 litres [1,100 gallons] of water a day compared to the 1,000-2,000 litres used by people on vegetarian diets in developing countries."

  • Professor John Anthony Allan:
    (World renowned water scientist & Stockholm Water Prize Laureate)
    He says plant-based diets are “the magic demand management thing that could be done” for global water security, cutting our water footprint roughly in half. He adopted a plant-based diet for this very reason.

  • Arjen Hoekstra:
    (World renowned water scientist & Water Footprint Network founder)
    “Animal products form the single most important factor in humanity’s water footprint” and “we need to re-examine the place meat and dairy have in the diet of modern man.” He too adopted a plant-based diet due to his own research.

 

Average Person's Water FOODprint

Source: National Geographic, "Water Conservation Tips"
 
Eating more meat and dairy has been the single greatest factor for water consumption in the past 30 years.
— TIME, "5 Ways to Celebrate World Water Day," 2015
A global shift in diets away from livestock products could free significant water resources.
— Chatham House, "Livestock – Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector: Global Public Opinion on Meat and Dairy Consumption"
 

Animal agriculture overuses AND pollutes water.

Runoff from the fertilizer used to grow feed, as well as from the massive amounts of liquid and solid animals waste, ends up in our water.

  • Greenpeace states that "livestock is the most significant contributor to nitrogen and phosphorus pollution of streams, rivers and coastal waters worldwide." Huffpo reports that chicken giant Tyson alone pollutes more water than Cargill and ExxonMobil put together.

  • Dairy and small local farms are part of the problem too (and as discussed here, small animal farms aren't scalable due to land use requirements).

  • Slaughterhouses / abattoirs use and pollute mind-boggling amounts of precious water as well. In fact, one single slaughterhouse in Illinois is the largest nitrogen polluter of waterways in the U.S., every single day producing more than 2 million gallons of wastewater to kill 20,000 pigs. The full report finds that three quarters of large U.S. meat processing plants that discharge their wastewater directly into streams and rivers violated their pollution control permits over the last two years, with some dumping as much nitrogen pollution as small cities – and facing little or no enforcement.

 
Animal agriculture manure is a primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus to surface and groundwater.
— U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
 

Animal agriculture is draining ancient aquifers dry.

Aquifers are underground sources from which groundwater can be extracted, many containing ancient "fossil water" from the time of the last glaciation. Annual withdrawals are far exceeding the amount nature can recharge. What's causing this?

  • California’s Central Valley Aquifer: In 2015, NASA satellite data showed this aquifer is "being drained to irrigate farm fields," a process attributable for roughly two-thirds of California's water losses. What kinds of farm fields? Alfalfa and other "livestock" feed crops use the most water by far (Pacific Institute), and 70% of CA alfalfa is grown in the Central Valley – nearly 100% of which is irrigated (UC Davis).

  • The American Midwest's Ogallala Aquifer: Used primarily for cattle (including grain and corn feed), the Ogallala is estimated to peak by 2040 due to pumping it far faster than it can be possibly recharged. Per Washington Post, stopping that “would require a drastic reduction of corn and cattle production.”


Sec. 3

What will future diets need to look like?

Water scientists say 95% of our calories must be obtained from plant-based foods by 2050 in order to avoid what they call catastrophic food and water shortages, noting even just 5% animal-based foods would be a challenge to maintain globally.

(Source: Stockholm International Water Institute's 2012 World Water Week Report – Feeding a thirsty world)

 

The Diet of the Future

Source: Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) report "Feeding a Thirsty World"
 

Did you know?

  • Many experts predict that water will become the next oil as a driver of global conflict. In 1996, then World Bank Vice President Dr. Ismail Serageldin said, "The wars of the next century will be fought over water."

  • Over 1/2 of US and nearly 1/3 of total global freshwater consumption is used just for animal agriculture. (Sources: CSPI & PNAS)

  • In 2016, a secret report was leaked revealing that Nestle execs told U.S. officials back in 2009 that the world is on a catastrophic course with freshwater scarcity in part because Americans eat too much meat.

  • Newsweek specifies meat consumption as a leading factor driving the global water crisis now spreading to the US, which "could spark unrest across the world, and dire consequences."

  • Deforestation, which is primarily driven by animal agriculture, makes droughts worse.

  • Climate change, also driven largely by animal agriculture, also effects a variety of factors associated with drought.

  • Drought exacerbates wildfires.

 
A calorie of meat requires 10 times as much water to produce as a calorie of food crops. As the world’s growing middle classes eat more meat, the earth’s water resources will be dangerously squeezed.
— Tour d'Horizon with Nestle: Forget the Global Financial Crisis, the World is Running out of Fresh Water
 

FAQs

No drought, no problem?

Droughts have been drier and longer-lasting in recent years thanks in part to climate change, which increases the odds of worsening ongoing droughts in the decades ahead. Additionally, as noted above, the underground aquifers that have been around forever are now being drained mostly to feed "livestock." That's why we need to conserve freshwater even in times of abundant rainfall. Droughts are sure to come and go.

Isn't a vegan solution only specific to local farming density?

Hoekstra explains that globalization means food consumption in one place often affects water demand elsewhere – and that household use only accounts for a wimpy 4% of the water footprint of humanity. “It is obvious,” he declares, “that consumers can reduce their water footprint by reducing their volume of meat consumption.” We need a global plant-based shift to help avert local water crises everywhere.

What about desalination?

Desalinating ocean water as a freshwater source is an incredibly expensive, environmentally invasive tech fix that overlooks the root cause of the water scarcity problem, which is animal consumption. A plant-based shift would logically remove the need for this costly, destructive undertaking.

Don't plants need water too?

Of course they do, but again, primary consumption of plants requires far fewer resources, including water, than secondary consumption of plants via animals.

Aren't cows only raised in areas with plenty of water?

The opposite is true. As of May 2018, Rabobank said 70 percent of "beef" cows reside in states with drought stress, with eight states that contain 34 percent of the cow herd rate at extreme to exceptional drought. And as mentioned, even areas with once-abundant massive aquifers are being drained dry by animal agriculture.

Is grass-fed beef water efficient?

No.

  • "Plant-based preferences (...) will have a much bigger impact than chowing down on even the best grass-fed burgers." (Grist, Is grass-fed beef better in a drought?)

  • "Animals fed on grain, and also those which rely on grazing, need far more water than grain crops." (Anders Berntell, Stockholm International Water Institute executive director)

  • "It's not so simple to say that extensively pasture-raised is better than intensively industrially produced (...) From an environmental perspective it's best to reduce or stop meat consumption altogether. The reason is that it's so much more efficient to obtain calories and protein directly from crops than indirectly from meat." (Dr. Arjen Hoekstra, Creator of the Water Footprint concept)

Further reading:


Summary

Freshwater is a limited resource that is being used and polluted faster than is sustainable. Animal consumption accounts for the majority of humanity's water footprint, yet plant-based diets slash this footprint significantly. There is no need to wait for water catastrophe to adopt a plant-based diet, and there is no need to exploit and slaughter animals at all in societies of abundance. If you have access and autonomy, please go vegan today for the animals as well as our planet's future inhabitability.