The water that you eat
Need to shift to a more sustainable diet without compromising on major nutrients and calories
Historically, India has been a net exporter of virtual water (Image: PxHere)

What was your water consumption today?

If I were to quickly calculate this, I would add up the litres of water I drank, the water I used up in cooking, washing, cleaning, and bathing; and quickly tell you that I used up around 80 litres of water. Your total would also be somewhere in the ballpark.

But your actual water consumption is higher than this - much, much higher.

We only think of water we use in its liquid form, mostly flowing from our taps. But what is surprising about this is that our virtual water consumption i.e., the hidden or indirect water in the products and services we consume, occurs in many forms and in large quantities and yet it goes blatantly unnoticed.

Let’s talk about our food. It makes up the major chunk of our total water consumption every day. I started calculating my virtual water consumption in the form of food on a usual day and my “balanced diet” seems to take my daily consumption to 1700 litres!  (see table below)

This is where things get problematic and unsustainable. The current per capita water availability in India is roughly 1486 litres per day and it is projected to fall to 1340 in 2025, and to 1140 litres in 2050. With further increase in population, urbanization, and higher disposable incomes, the average virtual water consumption will continue to rise and eventually push our water resource management systems to a breaking point.

Agriculture utilises 80% of India’s total available water and we will find it easy to blame the farmers in the face of looming water scarcity. But the real problem lies within us - as consumers of the food they grow. We demand that the farmers grow food that is heavily influenced by the green revolution. Rice and wheat have become an integral part of our convenience-driven modern lives over the last 40 years. And it is going to be hard to even think about replacing them with anything else.

But we must try, for the sake of our future, and the generations to come. We can do our bit, without much effort or major sacrifices.

Imagine that nature has given you 1340 litres of water to spend in a day i.e. roughly 9,000 litres a week.

  1. Calculate your daily water consumption including the food you eat. You can use this simple tool to get an approximate value. Multiply it by 7. Are you well within your weekly budget?
  2. See if you can reduce a few items or use less water-intensive substitutes. Let’s say, cutting down on the total sugar you take in your daily tea or coffee. Or bajra rotla instead of wheat rotis once in a while. Or reduce the frequency of eggs and chicken in your weekly diet.

For the love of numbers, it takes 2000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of sugar, and only 400 litres for a kilogram of ragi.

  1. Make it a habit to calculate the virtual water in your key food items and educate your family, especially the younger ones so that they not only budget for monetary expenses but also for water in future and make better choices.
  2. Pat yourself on the back when you are well within your weekly budget because you have done your bit to conserve water.

Being ready for the 2050 scenario entails that we start shifting slowly towards a more sustainable diet plan. Ideally, our current daily water consumption should be no more than 1340 including all other domestic water uses. And while we make this shift, we must also consider the nutritional aspects. There is a way to eat our way towards a water-secure future and it is the way of our forefathers, who lived in resource-constrained times.

I made an attempt at creating an aspirational diet plan:

Food item

Quantity consumed (before)

Volume of water needed to produce 1 unit*

My virtual water consumption (litres)

Before

Now

Before

Now

Milk

0.5 L

0.3 L

1000

500

300

Bananas

0.1 kg

0.1 kg

800

80

80

Eggs

2 pc

1 pc

200

400

200

Rice

0.1 kg

0.05 kg

2500

250

125

Millets**

0

0.1 kg

400

0

40

Potato

0.1 kg

0.1 kg

140

14

14

Pulses

0.05 kg

0.05 kg

1500

75

75

Wheat

0.1 kg

0.1 kg

1500

150

75

Vegetables

0.25 kg

0.25 kg

300

75

75

Apple

0.1 kg

0.1 kg

800

80

80

Chicken

0.08 kg

0.04 kg

4300

344

172

Domestic water use

80

70

TOTAL

2048

1381

*Compiled from openly available sources

**added a healthier part-substitute to rice and wheat; millets have higher vitamin, mineral, and protein content than rice and wheat

And in doing so I realised that while I am able to cut down on my water footprint by 33%, there was no compromise to the total nutritional value.

It is apparent that we can make the shift to a more sustainable diet without compromising on major nutrients and total calories. What is even better is that substituting rice with coarse grains like millets ensures more essential fatty acids, micro-nutrients, minerals, dietary fiber, and less carbohydrates.

In the most recent years, the maximum growth in farming has been seen in dairy, eggs, meat, and fish - all of which are quite water guzzlers. And the overall production of sustainable crops like millets has seen a decline. If a significant number of us are able to make small changes consistently over a period of time, the invisible hand of the market will provide enough incentives to the farmers to grow more sustainable crops and earn well from them. This change in consumer demand at scale will result in improving India’s water security in the face of climate uncertainty. Growing water hardy and climate resilient crops will decentralize nutrient production and reduce the impact of climate shocks.

RRR is the mantra for each of us:

  • Remember (the virtual water in every major food item you consume)
  • Reduce (the quantity of water intensive food items)
  • Replace (with more sustainable and nutritious alternatives)

Every meal counts.

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