What Is A Water Footprint? (What You Need to Know in 2024)

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Knowing the water footprint of an individual or business can help to compare water use with water consumption.

Here, we’ve answered the question: “What is a water footprint?” We’ve also discussed the different types of water footprints and the average water footprint of several common products that are produced and sold globally.

πŸ“Œ Key Takeaways:

  • A water footprint measures how much water is used to produce goods and services, both directly and indirectly, by businesses, individuals, countries, and other groups or entities.
  • The purpose of the water footprint is to understand how our freshwater resources are used and polluted, and determine the consequences of our water consumption.
  • Conducting a water footprint assessment involves outlining your goals, collecting data, assessing your water sustainability, and formulating a response strategy.

πŸ€” What Is A Water Footprint?

A water footprint is the measure of the total volume of freshwater used (both indirectly and directly) to produce products or services by an organization or individual. The water footprint concept was created by Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra of the University of Twente in 2002.

Water footprints quantify the amount of water that’s consumed throughout the entire supply chain, from production and processing to distribution, and the water consumed during the life cycle of a product.

You might also use the water footprint to calculate the volume of water that’s needed to produce all the services and goods that are used by individual consumers or communities, nations, or the whole world’s population.

Individually, you can determine both your direct water footprint (a measure of how much water is used directly by you), as well as your indirect water footprint (the total of all the water footprints of all the services and products you consume).

Continue Reading: 8 Uses of Water in Industry

Municipal city water treatment plant

🚰 What Is The Purpose Of The Water Footprint?

According to the Water Footprint Network, the water footprint allows us to understand the different use purposes of our freshwater resources, and the consequences of water use and pollution.

Different companies, individuals, and governments may use the water footprint to ask and answer a variety of questions, including:

  • How effectively are we protecting our water sources with current regulations?
  • What’s the water dependence in my business’ supply chain or operations?
  • How secure are our energy or food supplies?
  • What are the best ways to reduce my water footprint?

You can’t answer these questions until you know the existing water footprint in your situation. Only then can you compare your water footprint to averages or other individuals, countries, companies etc. and answer the questions you have.

πŸ“ˆ How Is The Water Footprint Measured?

The water footprint is measured in a few different ways, depending on what question you want to answer.

Common measurements for the water footprint are:

  • Cubic meters per hectare of cropland
  • Cubic meters per tonne of production
  • Cubic meters per unit of currency ($, Β£, etc.)

Essentially, you can measure your water footprint with any functional unit that makes sense in your situation.

Measuring water footprint

πŸ“– Types Of Water Footprints

There are three types of water footprints that you might hear of: green, blue, and grey water footprints. These help us to understand water use by describing the different types of source water used for various purposes.

Green Water Footprint

A green water footprint is the volume of water from rainfall that’s stored in the soil root zone and is either incorporated by plants or lost by evapotranspiration. Knowing a product’s green water footprint is helpful in the forestry, horticultural, and agricultural sector.

Blue Water Footprint

A blue water footprint is a measure of how much water from groundwater or surface water resources (such as wells, rivers, and lakes) has been sourced and used in a product, evaporated (e.g. during crop irrigation), or used and returned to another water source, or returned at a later date. Industrial, domestic, and agricultural water usage all have blue water footprints.

Grey Water Footprint

A grey water footprint is how much water is used to dilute point-source or nonpoint-source pollutants, like municipal and industrial wastewater, discharges from mining operations, and agricultural runoff, until the water is “clean” enough to meet water quality standards.

πŸ“‹ Water Footprint Assessment

You can map and quantify the green, blue, and grey water footprints, and assess the efficiency and sustainability of water use, with a water footprint assessment.

This four-phase process, designed by the Water Footprint Network, helps you to identify the actions you should take to improve the sustainability of a water footprint.

Below, we’ve broken down the four phases of the water footprint assessment.

Step 1: Set The Survey Goals

What do you want to get out of your water footprint assessment? Outlining your goals is the first place to start.

There are few reasons why you might want to undertake the assessment, such as:

  • To implement more sustainable water management practices within your business’ operations
  • To define water consumption and pollution benchmarks for specific activities or production processes for a specific product
  • To regulate water use and management for sustainability

You can tailor the assessment to help you achieve your goals and your study’s scope (i.e. whether the study will span a few months or several years, whether the focus will be within a single catchment or global, whether it will address one part of the production process or every phase from start to finish).

Once you’ve outlined the goals and scope, you will have a better idea of how the assessment will run, and what data will be used to measure water footprint.

Surveying water needs

Step 2: Collect Data

Next, you’ll need to collect the necessary data for calculating the water footprint.

You’ll either be tasked with collecting this data locally, or you might be able to use existing data from global databases, like WaterStat.

Step 3: Assess Water Sustainability

Step 3 involves assessing whether a specific water use is environmentally sustainable, amongst other things:

  • Environmental stability – This indicates that the water use doesn’t exceed the water resource’s maximum sustainable limits.
  • Resource efficiency – This is a measure of how efficiently water can be used for a specific purpose. The lower the water footprint, the more efficient the water use.
  • Equitable allocation – This is the fair allocation of water amongst users in different sectors.
Assessing water sustainability

Step 4: Formulate A Response Strategy

Now that you’ve gathered your water sustainability information, you can work on the final stage of the water footprint assessment: formulating a response strategy to reduce your water footprint and improve your sustainability.

There are several different possible response strategies, depending on the data you’ve collected and the purpose of your assessment.

Some example response strategies include:

  • Improved technology to reduce water use during production processes
  • Better metering to improve management of water
  • Collective action with other businesses and individuals to improve sustainability of a fresh water resource in the long-term

πŸ‘¨β€πŸ”§ Looking for a more detailed guide to the water footprint assessment? Check out this page on water footprint assessments on the Water Footprint Network website.

πŸ… Water Footprint Of Foods

The water footprint of foods is the volume of water that’s required to produce a specific product, from the start to the end of the production chain.

A food item’s water footprint doesn’t only refer to how much water was used – it also gives us an understanding of when and where the water is used.

If you eat a diet that’s high in meat and dairy, you’ll typically consume foods with the highest water footprints. Here are some estimated global average water footprints (in L/kg) for popular foods today:

  • Beef – 15,415
  • Chicken – 4,325
  • Chocolate – 17,196
  • Olive oil – 14,430
  • Rice – 2,497
  • Mangoes – 1,800
  • Dried tomatoes – 4,275

Take a look at this product gallery for more information on the different water footprints of the foods in our diets.

Water footprint in food

❔ Is The Water Footprint A Bad Thing?

No, the water footprint isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not like the carbon footprint, which we need to reduce as much as possible.

There are obvious benefits to a water footprint, including producing foods to eat, materials to build homes with, and clothes to wear.

However, individuals and companies should still aim to reduce their water footprints and make them more sustainable, resource-efficient, and equally distributed within populations.

Measuring a company’s or country’s water footprint is a good way to determine whether this company or country is using more fresh water for the same goods and services consumed compared to others. The company’s own water footprint is the internal water footprint, and the water used by other companies/countries to produce goods and services is the external water footprint.

πŸ“‘ Final Word

Hopefully, you now know more about the water footprint and its importance in measuring the sustainable use of surface or groundwater resources.

You can reduce your own domestic water footprint at home by employing water conservation practices, like taking shorter showers, installing a greywater recycling system, and fixing leaky taps.

πŸ‘¨β€πŸ”§ Check out our guide to the 21 easy ways to conserve water at home for more tips and advice.

  • Laura Shallcross
    Senior Editor

    Laura is a passionate residential water treatment journalist who holds an undergraduate degree in Print Journalism and a master’s degree in Creative Writing. Over a span of 5 years she's written on a range of topics including water softening, well water treatment, and purification processes.

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