The Environment and Human Rights (3): Water and Human Rights

We obviously need water to survive, and no human rights without survival. Inadequate water supplies also cause diseases, violating our right to health. We need water – and clean water – to drink, but also to eat. Or rather, to produce our food. And we need a lot. People drink on average just a few liters a day, but they consume thousands of liters a day if we count the water required to produce their food. And evidently we should count it. Many areas of the world face already now face water shortages. A fifth of the world’s population already lives in areas short of water. A global water crisis waits around the corner, and one likely consequence is famine, another human rights violation.

If we want to do something about the water crisis, we should be aware of the effect of food production on water shortages. Especially the production of meat requires huge amounts of water, compared to the production of grains or even rice. People in the West eat a lot a meat, and therefore contribute substantially to water shortages. As incomes in the developing world increase, people there will consume more meat. Hence, global water consumption will also increase. Combine this future increase with the fact that there are already shortages and that these shortages will get worse with global warming, desertification etc., and you get a real crisis.

What are the solutions? Or how can we prevent things from getting worse?

  • Jokingly we could ask people to become vegetarians. That would also be better for greenhouse gas emissions, by the way.
  • More realistically: food production, and especially agriculture and farming, represent 70% of global water consumption. That number could be cut down significantly with better irrigation; “more crop per drop”. There’s incredible waste going on there. 70% of irrigation water is lost in the process. One reason: farmers rarely pay their water bills at market prices, hence no incentives to cut waste. Unfortunately, pricing water at market prices would drive up food prices, pushing many consumers into poverty. And many poor farmers already can’t pay for expensive irrigation systems. More expensive water surely wouldn’t help them. Moreover, market prices may mean the privatization of water, and that’s dangerous. You might as well privatize oxygen.
  • Other solutions: cut waste in households and industries. Here, everyone can help. Also more recycling efforts are needed. Desalination, although expensive, is an option. As are better water storage facilities, especially for poor families in developing countries. All these efforts will not only reduce the risk of a major global water crisis, but will also improve crop yields, thereby reducing the price of food and hence the risk of poverty and famine.

6 thoughts on “The Environment and Human Rights (3): Water and Human Rights”

  1. Great piece highlighting the importance of meat consumption in water scarcity, but I’m not sure why the first suggestion has to be such a joke. Of course it might be more productive to urge people to eat more plant-based foods they already eat (we use the PB&J as a mascot/example) but we can advocate for healthy moderation the same way we urge people to cut back on gasoline use (drive less, drive a hybrid, public transportation, walk/bike more). It can blow the mind to think that PB&J saves a few hundred gallons of water over a hamburger. That might not make someone a vegetarian, but it might make them cut back on the hamburgers.


    1. You’re right. I’m a vegetarian myself, partly because of the environment. I just make it a habit not to be too moralizing about it. I think it’s indeed more promising to promote meat reduction than to promote vegetarianism.


  2. While we can’t really tell people what to eat and what not to eat (this would only be possible in a repressive regime), we need to boost awareness of the effects of things we do in our daily lives that we do not even consider. This is not only related to vegetaranism, but includes other things that people are simply not aware of, such as purchasing diamonds, cosmetics that harm animals, etc. A holistic approach is needed. Focusing on just one thing or problem creates an excess of uncoherent information that people fail to take serously because they do not understand it.


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