Individual Choices on World Water Day

Happy World Water Day!

“Water,” said Leonardo da Vinci, “is the driving force in nature.” Water is also the driving force in agriculture. We can’t grow food without it. As we’ve discussed, water is intricately connected to the right to food. Some people even argue that land grabs are in fact water grabs – a search by countries and companies to access what may be nature’s most valuable resource. In addition to its importance to the global food system, water also stands alone as a human right grounded in international law.

As a human rights lawyer, I generally view issues from the perspective of governments’ (and other entities’) legal obligations. And I believe it is important to think of ourselves primarily as individuals in a community rather than as consumers – a distinction that has become blurred in the United States. We aren’t going to buy ourselves into a better world.

But individual consumer choices do have an impact on the world around us, and sometime it’s helpful to talk about those, too. I was reminded of this the other day when I received an email from a water charity inviting me to “Enjoy a Burger and Help End the World Water Crisis.” The charity was joining forces with a hamburger shop that pledged to donate a small share of today’s proceeds to the charity. Now, I don’t fault anyone for having an occasional hamburger, but I do object to claims that one can make a positive impact on the water crisis by eating a burger.

Beef is one of the most water-intensive items that we can eat. It takes nearly 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, compared with 576 gallons for a pound of pork, 468 gallons for a pound of chicken, or 216 gallons for a pound of soy. You can call beef delicious, you can call it dinner, but you cannot call eating it an act to end the world water crisis, even if 15% of net sales are donated to the water charity of your choice. Indeed, I am hard pressed to think of any food that is more water intensive.

Having “an impact on the water crisis” will require more than eating a burger, or even building some wells. Improving access to water will require appropriate government policies, as well as individuals’ and communities’ efforts to hold governments accountable for their obligations to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to safe drinking water. Addressing water needs will also require that large corporations minimize their water waste and stop polluting water sources. On World Water Day, we would do well to remember the obligations and responsibilities of governments and corporations in relation to the human right to water. But yes, minimizing the global water crisis can also start with us, because to do so will require changes in our global consumption habits – including a shift towards eating less meat.

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