Water footprint: The hidden dimension of our water use and why it matters to ecosystems and economies

By Eric Mysak

Think about the amount of water that you use. What probably comes to mind are household activities such as showering, drinking water, or flushing the toilet. But what about the amount of water that goes into the production of the goods and services we buy and consume?

Everything from food and clothes to cars and computers; these all require significant quantities of water to produce. When we include these “indirect” uses of water, we begin to see that the amount water flowing through our taps and toilets make up only small fraction of our total water footprint.

This diagram shows the amount of water needed to produce a few commonly used goods:

By looking at the hidden dimensions of water use – how water is embedded in the commodities we produce and consume – water footprinting not only paints a more complete picture of how much water our lifestyles require, but also allows us to better understand the complex flow of water through the economy, and the related impacts on the rivers, lakes, wetlands and aquifers that are the sources of our water supply.

As we look closer at the activities that drive our economies – everything from energy generation, agriculture and mining to the manufacturing of goods and the service sector – it becomes apparent that water is deeply embedded in virtually every aspect of the economy.  So when we’re talking about water and the economy, it has to do with so much more than the sale of bottled water or new technologies to treat and conserve water resources.

The role of water in the economy is rapidly emerging as a hot topic in Canada and around the world.  Most recently, under the Blue Economy Initiative, a study released in 2011 focused on water’s measurable contribution to the Canadian economy.  A 2010 report released by the Innovolve Group entitled “Water and the Future of the Canadian Economy” emphasized the importance of water as a driver of economic development.  Also, a report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy highlighted some potential economic implications of changes in water supply resulting from climate change.

To reduce exposure to water related risks, several businesses are also starting to pay more attention to their water footprint.  And at the same time, investors are calling for more stringent water accounting from businesses to identify potential risks – lending further credence to the adage “what gets measured gets managed”.  In fact, among Global 500 companies that responded to the investor supported Carbon Disclosure Project’s 2011 Water Disclosure questionnaire, 59% reported facing exposure to water related risks, and over one third reported financial impacts resulting from water risks.  In the context of growing pressures on the world’s freshwater resources, there is tremendous opportunity for companies willing to be leaders in water stewardship.

Globally, WWF is recognized as a leader in water footprinting, both in terms of technical expertise and through our work with major businesses to improve water stewardship.  Building on this, WWF-Canada is in the process of producing a report looking at the embeddedness of water in the Canadian economy which aims to shed light on the water-food-energy nexus and the need to ground this within sustainable ecological boundaries. The report will be released in June,2012.

WWF-Canada is a presenting organization of Canada Water Week. Eric Mysak is WWF-Canada’s freshwater conservation analyst and a member of the Canada Water Week organizing committee. He directed the water footprint content creation for www.canadawaterweek.com.

This blog was originally published November 30, 2010 at http://blog.wwf.ca.


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