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We waste more water than we realise through our diets (Issue date: 22 March, 2022)

For the average person, water conservation probably involves taking shorter showers or not leaving taps running. However, this "visible” use of water accounts for only 10 per cent of our total consumption.

This Tuesday marks World Water Day, and this year’s theme focuses on the water waste we can’t see.

Today, 70 per cent of global freshwater use is for agriculture, and a large portion is used for raising livestock. The meat-heavy diets of most urban populations are therefore extremely water-intensive. Hong Kong, for example, has a water footprint of around 4,700 litres per person per day – double that of the recommended Chinese diet.

Meat can’t take all of the blame, however. A cup of coffee consumes 140 litres of water. While it may not sound like much, the average person in Hong Kong drinks 165 cups a year, and the average person in Europe as many as 800 cups.

Health food trends also put a strain on water resources. California is the world’s largest exporter of almonds. But increased cultivation has worsened water problems in the drought-prone state. The rise in popularity of avocados has caused similar problems in parts of South America.

Climate change will only exacerbate our water problems. When Yunnan suffered its worst drought of the decade in 2020, around 1.5 million people experienced drinking water shortages and some 300,000 hectares of crop were damaged.

Adopting a plant-heavy diet is good for us and the planet. Swapping meat for fish or going vegetarian can cut our water footprint by 35-55 per cent. Even eating meat less often will reduce your footprint by at least 11 per cent. As consumers, we need to look beyond the "visible” health benefits of our food to the invisible environmental impact.

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