Booming Middle-Class Diet May Stress Asia's Water Needs

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Thirsty Beef

In China, the country's per capita "water footprint" for food production has almost doubled since 1985, said Junguo Liu of the Beijing Forestry University. A switch from traditional rice and noodles to a meatier diet is behind the change, Liu said.

It takes about 35 cubic feet (1 cubic meter) of water to grow a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice or wheat, but a kilogram of beef takes 445 cubic feet (12.6 cubic meters) of water to produce, the researcher said.

"Changes in food consumption are the major cause of worsening water scarcity in China," Lui said.

Total water requirements for food production in China are predicted to rise by 40 to 50 percent in the next 30 years, he added.

"Where do you get such a big amount of water? It is a really big question and a big challenge … ."

"If other developing countries follow China toward a Western diet, the global water shortage becomes even more serious," Liu said.

Climate Change

The recent IWMI study didn't factor in possible climate change impacts on Asia's water supplies, so the paper's pessimistic projections may in fact prove overly optimistic, the authors stated.

Climate modelling forecasts presented in Stockholm by the Asian Development Bank suggest production of irrigated wheat and rice could drop across the region by 21 percent and 16 percent respectively by 2050.

"That's pretty troubling, as it's obviously going to have a big impact on food prices as we look into the future," said the bank's climate change specialist David McCauley.

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