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Livestock - the thirst makers?

Are livestock a burden or a benefit where water is scarce? (© FAO)
Are livestock a burden or a benefit where water is scarce?
© FAO

Livestock require more than seven times more water than crops for each kilogram produced. This has led some to suggest that there is a need to change eating habits and slow or reverse the trend to meat-based diets. However, such comparisons and generalisations, based on worldwide averages, mask the fact that the greatest use of water by livestock is in industrial production of cattle, pigs and poultry fed on grains and irrigated alfalfa, which themselves require substantial quantities of water for production. In contrast, ruminants grazing rangelands and consuming stovers after harvest, or free-range, scavenging pigs and poultry cannot be debited with water to produce what they eat. So, is there a more realistic view of the role and future of livestock production where water availability is constrained by other demands?

Admittedly, vegetarian diets consume less than half the water used for meat-based diets, but it is unrealistic to expect consumers to modify their tastes because of water concerns. Indeed, with malnourishment a major target for Millennium Development Goals, improved diets including meat and dairy products will be necessary, and these unavoidably require more water than grains.

Don Peden of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the only speaker at World Water Week in Stockholm to represent and plead the case for livestock production in a water-constrained future, gave four reasons to justify continuing animal production. In his presentation, titled Investing in Water for Livestock, he said that while there will undoubtedly be greater competition for available water, particularly in semi-arid regions favoured by pastoralists, a holistic view of livelihoods had to include animals. First, livestock are a key indicator of wealth in many rural societies, and a lack of livestock denotes poverty. Second, meat and milk are essential in diets of children particularly, increasing academic scores and improving motor and cognitive skills. Third, draft animals aid crop production, and without them crop yields would be reduced significantly. Finally, livestock products are of high value and can contribute very positively to the rural economy.

A balanced view... an integrated approach

In countries where meat production is highest consumption levels appear to have stabilised and may even be declining. And it is in these affluent western countries where there may be some opportunity to reduce meat consumption further through greater awareness of either health or environmental concerns. In sub-Saharan Africa meat consumption per head is currently only one-tenth of that in the US and Europe, and to suggest a reduction for this region would be unreasonable and unfair, says Peden. Further, even at the relatively high rate of increase now evident, sub-Saharan Africa will still be eating only one-sixth of developed countries' consumption by 2030. So a balance needs to be struck.

But if livestock are to play the role and make the contribution that they should, they will have to be integrated into development plans rather than treated as an 'add-on' or after-thought, as so often in the past. "It's quite remarkable", says Peden, "that when millions, sometimes billions of dollars are spent on agricultural schemes, particularly irrigation schemes, provision of water and drinking troughs for livestock is excluded." He instances a community-based irrigation scheme in northern Ethiopia, where water storage has been developed in micro-dams of up to 1 million cubic metres capacity. Yet there has been no recognition or provision for the livestock of the people. Another example is the largest irrigation scheme in the world, the 800,000 hectare Gezira constructed in the 1920s, but the 1.5 million livestock that are to be found here were not recognised in policy and management until the 1980s.

The drinking water needs of livestock are well known. A Tropical Livestock Unit of 250 kg live bodyweight, whether comprising a cow, many chickens or part of an elephant, says Peden, drinks between 20 and 50 litres of water per day. The amount depends on whether the animal is lactating, its stage of growth and on other factors such as temperature. That water can be budgeted and provided, preferably and most economically via drinking troughs. In Kenya, piped drinking water significantly increased smallholder milk production and the local economy. Too often, however, where no provision is made, animals fall into steep-sided irrigation channels, often injuring themselves; or may break down canal banks and, by fouling the water, spread helminths carried by snails.

Projections show that demand for livestock products in sub-Saharan Africa will grow substantially, particularly as more people move into cities, come out of poverty, and have more income to spend. "This will drive the demand for livestock products whether we like it or not", says Peden. A similar trend has been seen in China for some years. But, whereas China may have the means to buy the feed grains or the livestock products required, most African economies will have to depend on home-grown supplies. This may appear a challenge, but it also provides an opportunity to develop value-added animal production as an engine of rural growth. And, if it comes to choices, as the Director-General of the International Water Management Institute stated at Stockholm, it will be necessary to allocate water use on the basis of providing for the best economic benefit. Clearly, though, mixed or inter-dependent crop-livestock systems are the most productive: crops and livestock need each other, and both need water.

Date published: September 2004

 

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