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Water Footprints Make a Splash

By Ben Block

UNEP102-2.jpgIf the full water requirements of a morning roast are calculated - farm irrigation, bean transportation, and the serving of the coffee - one cup requires 140 liters of water.

This notion of a product's "water footprint" is gaining traction. Defined as the total volume of freshwater required to produce a nation's goods and services, the tool tracks domestic water demand and the impact of consumption on water resources across the globe.

As world water availability begins to decline as the result of population growth, overconsumption, and climate change, more water advocates are encouraging governments and consumers to internalize the true cost of water through an account of their water footprint.

The global water footprint is about 7.5 trillion cubic meters per year, not including irrigation losses, according to estimates [PDF] by Dutch researchers and the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). India, with 17 percent of the global population, has the largest water footprint in absolute terms. But its footprint represents only 13 percent of the world total. The United States, in comparison, comprises 4.5 percent of the world population and consumes 9 percent of the world's water.

Agriculture has the greatest impact on a water footprint. Global crop production requires more than 6 trillion cubic meters of water each year, with nearly a quarter of supplies flowing to rice paddies. Livestock production requires the most water resources in the food chain. One hamburger, for instance, needs 2,400 liters of water on average.

During World Water Week, which runs through Sunday, the water footprint concept is benefiting from a spike in attention. This year's Stockholm Water Prize was awarded to professor John Anthony Allan of King's College London for introducing the predecessor to water footprints: the term "virtual water" - the volume of water required to produce a commodity or service.

The conservation group WWF-UK estimated that the 4,645 average liters of water that Britons consume daily leads the country to import 62 percent of its water sources - making it the sixth largest net importer worldwide behind Brazil, Mexico, Japan, China, and Italy, according to a report released Wednesday. "Only 38 percent of the UK's total water use comes from its own rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves," said WWF's Stuart Orr in a press statement. "The rest is taken from...water resources [often] stressed or very likely to become so in the near future."

Plastic manufacturer Borealis and plumbing supplier Uponor revealed a joint plan to include water footprints in the future planning of plastic products on Wednesday. "Understanding our footprint can be a key tool to further guide the development of more water-saving products," said Tarmo Anttlla, Uponor's communication vice president, in a prepared statement.

Roughly one-third of the world population is estimated to be living in areas of water scarcity. Unless water footprints recede, fierce conflicts over water resources are likely unavoidable, experts warn.

"Feeding everyone - including the undernourished and additional 3 billion people expected in 2050 - will require 50 percent more water than is needed today," said Anders Berntell, executive director of Stockholm International Water Institute at the World Water Week opening ceremony. "We are not prepared to deal with the implications this has for our planet."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute, where this article appeared originally. He can be contacted at

In the photo above: Children in India collect water during drought. Roughly one-third of the world population is estimated to live in areas of water scarcity. Photo credit: UNEP.

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How is the Water Footprint calculated?

Does it differentiate between water that finds its way back into the same eco-system (water from the manufacturing system is often reuseable),

water that is displaced in a foreign eco-system (water imported to the UK ends up somewhere, even as a by-product),

or water that is completely removed from the eco-system altogether (such as the case with water used in the Canadian oilsands project).

Just wondering how the numbers are reached and how the true global impact is tracked and measured.


Posted by: Coconutfarmer on 27 Aug 08

agriculture uses 6 of the 7 trillion litres we use !!!???

agriculture does not need irrigation !

Food forest style gardening and other permaculture practices reduce the need for water well over 90% .

It does this with the use of shade and mulches and diversity in crops with different and complimentary requirements .

admittedly , it is not condusive to monocrop raising , say a million hectares of corn or wheat , but then that practise is very unsustainable from every perspective .

Why is this discussion based on the concept of water requirements continuing unsustainable practises of agriculture ?

The way to feed the growing population is more efficient use of resources , by creating win/win integrated situations of plants and animals of diverse species , requiring as few outside inputs * i.e. rescources from elsewhere ) .
Low inout high output farming systems .

As this system is generally suited to growing a very diverse selection and smaller quantitied m it is more suitable to locala consumption rather than agribusiness .
This is advantageous as it cuts distrivution and processing resources also , as well as being healthier and tastier .

Surely the hungry people need good local food more than money to then buy commercially produced food . It is bad for you .

Growing our food in the right way keeps the air and water clean and does not use excess resources .

Posted by: david duval on 28 Aug 08



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