Water footprint – showers versus red meat, which would you choose?

The right information allows us to make the right decisions. As organizations such as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) collects, stores and makes freely information about our use of resources it makes it easier to connect the dots. Once the dots are connected we as individuals can make informed lifestyle decisions rather than following ill informed legislation.

Using the shower example from a previous post we can compare how much water it takes to produce the meat we eat every year compared to the amount of water we use in our showers.

To make it more informative I will use a nice potable water truck as an example. Let’s start with the showers.

We would need one of these trucks every 12 months to allow us to take the average showers that an Australian has every year.


Before we get to the red meat. Lets look at milk. Milk comes from cows (well cows milk does anyway) and it takes a lot of water to feed, water and process milk. It takes about 1,000 litres of water to produce 1 litre of milk.

So we would need roughly 1 truck every month to create the average amount of milk and milk products an Australian consumes in one year.


Lets get on with the beef (well in this case red meat). Red meat is very water intensive – it has a high embodied water content or a large water footprint. On average it takes 15,000 litres of water to create 1 kg of beef.

To produce the red meat that the average Australian consumes in one year would take about one of these trucks every four days.


Now here is where you make the decision. As per the post on our water export decisions there are financial implications and also environmental implications. There are three options you can choose from, first option is that you buy a very low flow shower head for $20, save yourself a bit on your water bill (not worth calculating) and you save 5,000 litres of water per year.

The second option is to reduce your milk and milk products intake by 10% every year, save yourself $25 every year and you save 5,000 litres of water per year.

The third option is to reduce your red meat intake by 1% every year, save yourself $10 every year and you save 5,000 litres of water per year.

So which would you choose? We know the Government would choose the first option every time (shower heads) as it increases GDP, keeps people in jobs and keeps the meat and dairy industry happy. But which would you choose?

What else would you interested to know the water footprint of? What would you like to see compared? Put in your requests in the comment box below and I promise I will try and answer it.

15 Comments on “Water footprint – showers versus red meat, which would you choose?”

  1. Good article, although I’m a bit reluctant to choose between hygiene and protein. Perhaps it would be interesting to consider the water footprint of the Wine industry. I suspect that if water weren’t so ‘cheap’, Australia would be exporting a lot less low-value wine.

    • Thanks for the comment. I will have a look at the wine industry and post something soon. One interesting analysis I saw recently used wine as a example of transport footprint – if you live in New York, a bottle of red wine shipped from France has less transport impact than a bottle of wine from trucked from California!

  2. Hi Simon instead of choosing one over the other, I’d choose to do something about all of those footprints. Reduce my showers, consume less milk as well as consume let’s say one less meat meal per week.
    I’d be curious about other staples such as bread (preferably non white) and rice and what about some of our popular fruits like apples/oranges.

  3. Hey Simon,

    On the note of protein, as I’m aware red meat is also exceptionally high in embodied energy, I’d be interested in seeing a comparison with other types of protein for embodied water/energy, like fish, chicken, quinoa, beans, etc.

    • Hi Ben. Thanks for the comment. Looks like I’ve got some homework to do. I’ll get busy and post something as soon as I can get a full list together.

    • … not to mention the impacts that western consumption of quinoa (among other things) is having on the economies and livelihoods of the South American farmers, who are being priced out of their staple food… It’s like Asia being priced out of rice or chicken because the value has increased due to increased demand elsewhere, making it unaffordable for the originating farmers… Same thing goes for petrol, beer, and potentially water too… 😦

      • Very much so, it is starting to happen with natural gas costs in Australia. Sine we have learnt how to export natural gas in liquid form the domestic local gas cost goes up because it can be sold for higher prices and greater quantities elsewhere. In a similar way it’s the same with water but in a virtual sense, the countries where water is in very short supply would have to pay a lot of money to import water but not if its imported virtually through agricultural imports. Although we have yet to see an increase in water cost in Australia as a result of exporting virtual water.

  4. Although I hesitate to ask, beer would be interesting to see assessed this way. I understand whiskey is an extremely bad offender too, but at least the volumes consumed are a lot lower! How about coffee, tea and fruit juice? Or even petrol?!

    Its always easier creting homework than doing it!

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