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Indicators in Practice

Jan 22, 2014

Assessing Embodied Water Consumption: The Water Footprint Tool

The Water Footprint concept helps consumers understand the resources required for the production of basic goods.
CIAT / CC / Flickr

Case Study: The Water Footprint Tool

Scope: Corporate, National, and Global 

First Released: 2014

Intended Audience: Companies, governments, NGOs, investors, consultants, and researchers.

Potential Applications: Provides understanding of the embedded 'footprint' of water in various uses and the impacts; assists in identifying strategies for efficiency and reduced water consumption.

Developer: Water Footprint Network


Description: Water is necessary for just about everything we buy and use: powering our buildings and infrastructure, at every step in global supply chains, in great volumes for agriculture and food production; the list is endless. As its availability declines due to climate change, an accounting of how much people use may go a long way toward managing future scarcity. Unfortunately a means for doing that has proven elusive. Although direct use, like drinking, bathing, and cooking, is relatively easy to monitor, it only accounts for a portion of water use. It follows that indirect consumption of water is difficult to track.

The Water Footprint Network, an organization hosted by the University of Twente in the Netherlands, has made incredible strides toward pointing the way. Based on pioneering research by Arjen Hoekstra, the Water Footprint Network has developed a method for calculating the average total freshwater use per capita in most countries on the planet. This endeavor is inherently difficult and made even more so by the fact that not all water withdrawals in a country are used within its borders—consider exported products and services, for instance. And what about the difference between water withdrawals and the volume of water that is polluted through industry? All of these considerations are accounted for in the Water Footprint Network’s methodology.

The Water Footprint Network’s webtool allows users to calculate per capita water use, aggregate national use, use by corporations, and to search by industrial sector, region, and even watershed. The goal, of course, is to improve water policy and management at all scales. However the ingenuity of the tool, and its ease of use is an innovation in and of itself. Embedded water consumption values are highly variable nation by nation, and merely playing around with the tool yields interesting insights about the state of world consumption. The average consumer in the United States, for example, has a water footprint of 2,842 cubic meters per year, while the average consumer in China has a water footprint of 1,071 cubic meters per year.

The data derived from the application of this Water Footprint Index’s methods provide valuable snapshots of consumption patterns and comparative demand for internal and external water resources. However, there are limits. It is difficult to read too much about the welfare of human and ecological systems within countries simply by understanding water consumption data. And because the information given is at a national scale, without regional or local data per capita, it can be difficult for individuals to know where they stand or how they can improve. The primary significance of the Water Footprint Network’s tools—to begin to account for and manage real water use—cannot be overstated.