Water Footprint : A New Paradigm For Our Fresh Water Future

To solve the freshwater problem we must first understand how much water is actually available, how much we use, to what purpose, using what system, in what condition, and with what realistic capacity given rapid climate change and its visible and continuing catastrophic effect.

By Peter Neil
To solve the fresh water problem we must first understand how much water is available and how it is being used.

The new water paradigm should begin not at the top of the user pyramid, but at the bottom. It needs a better calculation of our own water footprint, a measure of the amount used to produce each of the goods and services we use, directly and indirectly, including “virtual” water and externalities. There is an excellent online tool to help us understand this process—the Water Footprint Network , founded in the Netherlands by Professor Arjen Hoekstra, and intended to assist individuals, companies, municipalities, and governments with water assessments, to design stewardship plans, and to offer training for new methodologies and project implementation under this new aquacentric approach.

The Water Footprint Network assesses three types of water as follows: Green water footprint is water from precipitation that is stored in the root zone of soil and evaporated, transpired or incorporated by plants. It is particularly relevant for agricultural, horticultural and forestry products.

Blue water footprint is water that has been sourced from surface or groundwater resources and is either evaporated, incorporated into a product or taken from one body of water and returned to another, or returned at a different time. Irrigated agriculture, industry and domestic water use can each have a blue water footprint.

Grey water footprint is the amount of fresh water required to assimilate pollutants to meet specific water quality standards. The grey water footprint considers pointsource pollution discharged to a freshwater resource directly through a pipe or indirectly through runoff or leaching from the soil, impervious surfaces, or other diffuse source.

Each of these requires an evaluation and strategy particular to use, place, and time for an individual, a business, a product, or a nation using a standard that, according to the Water Footprint Network website, “has been applied and tested worldwide across many sectors and includes detailed instruction and guidance on the following:


  • How to calculate the green, blue and grey water footprint to understand the geographic and temporal allocation of water resources for industry, agriculture and domestic water supply;
  • How to conduct a water footprint sustainability assessment which includes criteria for understanding the environmental sustainability, resource efficiency and social equity of water use, for both consumption and pollution;
  • How to use the results of the water footprint accounting and sustainability assessment to identify and prioritize the most strategic actions to be taken in local, regional, national and global scales, individually and collectively.


The Network provides an extensive data site, called WaterStat , a comprehensive collection of research and statistics about international, national, and product water footprints, as well as scarcity and pollution against which to compare baselines and set objectives. The website also makes available a free online assessment tool that allows the user to complete both a geographic assessment to explore the water footprint of a river basin, its sustainability, and ways to reduce consumption; or a production assessment to quantify and map operational and supply chain water footprints of a specific facility or product, to maintain sustainability, and to identify ways to reduce use going forward.

I admit it is facile to suggest such a radical change to how we interact with all elements of the water cycle without understanding the who, what, where, and how such actions are implemented down to the lowest level of use or production.

But there is a vast community of water scholars and hydraulic engineers available for such research, planning, design, and organization, that must be reprogrammed and reassigned to this new way of measuring and assuring the value of water as an organizing principle of a new society.

Why not try it for yourself? Go to waterfootprint.org and use the personal water footprint calculator. So what is the real cost of all that water that is typically under-valued in general and by the resultant negligible price factored into the accounting of what is purchased as raw material, transformed, and sold?

Now consider this: if climate and irresponsible water use and management further delimit the amount available for all uses just in the critical climate and under-supply we know today, what will the inevitable change in water valuation and consequent increase in price mean for the cost of a product or anything else on earth? It will simply be unaffordable. Just as for years we have been living the delusion of endless fossil fuel supply, we are now living in an even more devastating delusion of endless fresh water. What has been seemingly a dream is becoming a nightmare, and we have no alternative but to wake up, face reality, and change assumptions and behavior along the full systemic extent of the water cycle.

To solve the freshwater problem we must first understand how much water is actually available, how much we use, to what purpose, using what system, in what condition, and with what realistic capacity given rapid climate change and its visible and continuing catastrophic effect.

The answer is complicated and can only be found in the understanding of “watermarks,” measures of use at every level of supply and demand—for the individual, for separated uses, or uses not therefore integrated or included in the general calculation for corporate manufacture and processing, and for the externalities of virtual water as hidden in almost every product that affects our lives. Even if these disparate elements are recognized, measured, and integrated into a larger discussion, the problem still cannot be solved without first addressing the larger national policy question and a revolutionary new governance approach that, taken together with complementary international policies, adds up to a global solution.

This is not an easy process. There are many difficult questions and no easy answers. But when, as today, cities like São Paulo, San Francisco, and Bangkok are exhausting their drinking water supply, when the reservoirs and rivers run shallow or dry, when the water dependent crops cannot grow, when we can no longer stay clean or healthy, then this problem will find its urgent, irrefutable logic and we will change the “watermarks” we know today dramatically and forever.