Taking cautious steps in the use of Water Footprinting...

Posted: Friday 9th December 2011

CIWEM’s latest policy position statement welcomes the role that concepts such as water footprinting can play in raising awareness of the volumes of water required for the production of goods, but urges caution over the use of such terms which ignore the complexity of a number of factors such as the situation and source from which water is abstracted and returned.

Highlighting the size of water footprints has been extremely beneficial in focusing public attention on the volume of water required to produce food and goods at source and to deliver them to end users thus drawing attention to these hitherto overlooked issues. Water footprints determined in this ‘all things included’ way can be surprisingly large. 140 litres of water (on average) are said to be needed to produce one cup of coffee, and it is estimated that 17,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg of beef (EBLEX, 2010). A typical UK adult’s diet is said to have a water footprint of around 3,400 litres/day, compared to a direct drinking water requirement of 10 litres/day and an overall direct use (for domestic drinking, cooking, washing, watering and sanitation purposes) of around 150 litres/day.

However, CIWEM urges caution and care must be taken not to use the concept too simplistically. A water footprint is not a direct measure of environmental impact. The timing and location of the associated resources are vitally important aspects. The impact of water resource use on society and the environment is unlike the impact of carbon use and emissions in this respect, because whilst carbon emissions impact globally, water resource use impacts are confined to a local area or region, even when knock-on consequences are taken into account. Selecting between goods (or services) solely on the basis of the volumes of water involved in their production can therefore be very misleading.

The establishment of a definition which reflects impact rather than volume would avoid such problems but the complex interplay between the range of different factors make this difficult.

Chair of CIWEM’s Water Resource Panel, Colin Fenn, says: “It is a myth to suggest that the water footprint is a measure of environmental impact. So far, water footprints only measure the net volume of water associated with the manufacture of products and delivery of services. More work needs to be done to assess and determine the indentation of the footprint and its effects on the environment.”

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