Whose idea was water footprint? Please can you explain the concept and its history.
In September 2007 a number of organisations came together in the Netherlands around the concept of the water footprint, and then started a process of figuring out what that footprint could mean, especially for businesses, and how they could use the water footprint to better understand the issues around the sustainability of water use. This then happened in the course of 2008, when many other organisations and parties than companies joined the debate.
The World Water Week in mid-2008 showed that interest in the water footprint was soaring. Myself and Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra (scientific director of the Water Footprint Network and creator of the water footprint concept) came to the conclusion that we need a framework and institutional setup to organise the huge energy around the marketplace and other organisations. And we said that let’s put together a foundation that can channel the energy and be the basis for information and knowledge on the water footprint.
We don’t see that the water footprint will deliver everything to everybody but we think that it can help.
Who were you around the table when you created this idea?
The idea of the water footprint has been there for 10 years, cornered by Arjen Y. Hoekstra, who at the time worked at the UNESCO IHE – also one of the founding partners of the Water Footprint Network. UNESCO IHE is the one basically devising the methodology and putting numbers to the methodology of water footprinting.
The methodology started from the work of Tony Allan, from the UK, who investigated the issue of virtual water and virtual water trade. So Professor Hoekstra and his group at UNESCO IHE basically expanded on that concept and put numbers to it.
Organisations like WWF were very interested in the concept, as they had been trying for a long time to get to grips with the production and consumption side of water use.
And the water footprint seemed at the time an interesting concept to start better understanding the link between consumption and production and to get supply chains and global trade into the picture of water issues locally.
The first meeting organised around the issue in September 2007 included Arjen Y. Hoekstra, representatives of UNESCO IHE, participants from WWF, Coca Cola, Nestlé and the WBCSD [World Business Council for Sustainable Development]. That group of people expanded hugely during the course of 2008 and currently many more are now working with us to create a standard for water footprint.
Is that your final aim – to create water footprinting standards?
No, it is not the final aim. We have found that water footprint means a lot to many different people – especially when a thing becomes hype and suddenly everybody wants to have a piece of it.
But we hope that there will be one global method - based on best available science - to do water footprint assessment, because we do not want to end up in the same situation like with carbon where there are many, even competing, methods for assessing the carbon footprint.
We hope to bring together the science, practitioners and other stakeholders in the community around water management and the water footprint, and basically drive forward development of the standard. We have already published a first version of that standard, in 2009. It is available to everybody and is fully open source to make sure that everybody has the same starting point.
This was our first product, and it generated a lot of interest from different stakeholders around the world. But is also generated a lot of questions, and we set up research streams and working groups on those to flesh out some of the details.
Now, based on all the work done, we have a completely revised version of the manual with much more detailed information on things that were missing. It will be available to partners on 15 October and for the rest of the world in February 2011, as we are publishing it as a book.
At the same time we are also providing the updated datasets on the water footprint of nations and products. We are thus just providing information without saying who is a good or bad organisation or company, allowing people to make their own judgement.
We are also trying to engage in an ISO process – which is currently looking at the water footprint from the LCA (life-cycle assessment] perspective.
What are the biggest challenges in water footprinting?
I think that one of the biggest challenges that we are facing is to actually get the good datasets. Some of the data we get does not have the resolution in time and space in order to really help very localised water management, for example.
Another challenge is missing information on water use and consumption in some sectors.
So the big challenge is to push forward the agenda of getting datasets.
What are your datasets – what data you need?
It varies from high resolution climatic data to crop and production data, as well as water quality. Regarding water quality standards, for example, we need to assume a lot of things as standards do not exist around the globe and even when they exist, they may not really be used.
So it is very difficult to come up with good numbers when you don’t have that kind of information.
Therefore, whenever you see a water footprint assessment, these assessments always specify on which dataset, under what timeframe and which resolution they are based on – because there are a lot of assumptions. But it does not mean that the numbers are wrong – it means that numbers can be better.
But the question is how much of that data you really need to act in a sustainable manner in the course of your water consumption.
Which sectors do you lack data for?
You have to realise that the water footprint and virtual water trade debates originated from the food security issues. So it was mainly agriculture-oriented – production of food and commodities. So that’s where the main numbers are.
But we don’t have data on global consumption of water localised in time and space for the mining sector, for example, or that for the oil and gas industry. So, we cannot yet build a very complete picture of all water consumption globally, just because some sectors are still missing.
Why do you lack data on these sectors – are they not measuring their water use or unwilling to share the information?
If you look at the world’s water – 70-80% is being used by agriculture. And agriculture is one of the most important functions in society - to feed, clothe and employ people. So it is not that much about malice from other sectors, but is much more focused on the issue at stake (agriculture).
I think that in 2011 we will have more datasets on non-agricultural use sectors and more detailed ones on agriculture.
There might also be some methodological challenges, but I don’t actually think that they are very big.
While the concepts are well-defined - more experience needs to be gathered on how to apply them in different circumstances.
Another key challenge is for specific users to place their use within the context of the catchment or the hydrological unit – which is about connecting the use of water to the place. This is very different between water and carbon. While CO2 is emitted to one global ‘body’, placing one’s water use and consumption in the context of a river basin is very difficult, as is engagement in water management of that river basin.
But here we are coming from a new concept back to an old story: how uses will actually position and engage within the policy and institutional context which they operate in and where they are sourcing their materials from, which they live in and where they do or don’t have access to water and how they engage with each other to actually allocate water correctly.
What role is there for using footprinting in policymaking, in particular in the EU?
This is actually a very good question and there are many different aspects to this – both at the EU and country levels.
The Spanish have adopted the water footprint analysis within their river basin management planning. They have done it to understand the water consumption of all sectors in those river basins. And the reason behind that is to be able to compare the socio-economic value of the different sectors to society and to develop clear strategies to deal with increasing water issues in terms of scarcity and pollution.
So at national level, water footprinting can help policymaking in terms of river basin management, for example.
On another level, different policy sectors can be informed by the water footprint. And there is one sector that is not yet informed by the water footprint but could be a very strategic one, especially at European level:
If you look at Europe, water availability is very unevenly distributed across Europe and you can say that this is a problem. But it is also an advantage, because you see very high productive, highly efficient water use sector in terms of, for example, horticulture in Spain.
And the reason is that they have such scarce water resources there that they are producing very high value crops with that water. But at the same time they are still producing large amounts of their staple foodstuffs, like wheat and even cultural foodstuffs, like rice, with very valuable water. And that is in my opinion quite a waste of water, because you have other regions in Europe that would be much better suited for the production of foodstuffs.
So at European level, water footprinting could actually inform an analysis from a water perspective, where to go for example with low value, high water-demanding crops that are essential for part of food security in Europe. And this kind of debate I have not heard about yet. But it will surely go there.
So, the idea is to give advice on what crops can grow where with the smallest water footprint?
Not necessarily the lowest but the most efficient – in synchronisation with water availability so that you can actually retain the environmental and social benefits of rivers, as well as the economic activity.
I’m sure we will see this coming, but it is very difficult for people to understand how this can be done – so it will be up to researchers to start showing how the different endowments in terms of water now do not determine where crops are grown. It’s more the other things like subsidies and markets and the economy, and even opportunistic behaviour, which determine where crops are currently grown.
But with this kind of analysis and advice, will you be faced with the question of national food sovereignty?
Yes, that’s it. But I think that now within the European context what is happening is that national sovereignty is being greatly undermined – especially because of the financial crisis. We have to bail out everybody in Europe. So what you see is that there might actually be an opportunity to start opening those discussions at European level. But not at global level, as I’m sure there are many more difficulties at that level.
But at the European level, the EU by its nature would be a framework that could help further that debate. I think we will see that in the future.
Another thing is the cost-recovery and pricing and valuing of ecological services. In the sustainability assessment, water footprint uses the concept of sustainability boundaries – which is about how to actually sustain the environmental and social benefits associated with your water. And if you start pricing those you can actually balance them much better against the economic activities that are taking place on the basis of water.
So I think that here the water footprint has a role to play as an indicator.
There is also an opportunity here to have a much broader debate, beyond water managers, on weighing water consumption against environmental, social and economic benefits. We need trade and economic development ministries, water managers and suppliers to talk the same language in one room.
Beyond Europe, Europe also has a water footprint on the rest of the globe. And if you link your development and trade agendas to that water footprint, I think you could actually create win-win situations and develop economic activities that might be much greener.
Water footprints can not only inform on water but also on agricultural, trade and investment policies.
How do you want the EU to take water footprinting into account?
We are basically just starting to engage in policy discussions, as we’ve been so busy over the last two years in ramping up what we’ve been doing.
I’d expect that the water footprint will start featuring among other indicators of sustainability in Europe. And I don’t think that we need to do so much about that.
Many people have a very narrow view of what water footprinting is and I try to open up that view and say that you can use it as almost a sustainability indicator. But it can also inform on decision-making, not only on water policy, but it can also add to policymaking on economic issues – on trade and agriculture.
We have started to work on this and have written a report to the UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme], including a chapter on what kind of policy measures we see linked to the water footprint from the global to the very local level. But that is not a public document yet.
But a lot of this thinking on policy will also be incorporated to the new version of the manual. That is about starting to think how different users and governments at different levels can actually engage based on water footprinting.
Meanwhile, businesses seem to be ahead of the game regarding water footprinting. How do they benefit from this?
For corporates, water footprinting can mean a lot of different things. Most use it just to measure their water consumption in their operations and supply chain and try to link it to the local situation to understand what the main sustainability issues are – that businesses actually refer to as risks.
And they want to understand these risks – be they related to investments, reputation, regulation or sustainability – in their operations and supply chain.
As international focus on water and the need to improve water efficiency grows, could you imagine some sort of international trading developing around the impact of water use on the environment?
We take a very simple, tree-step approach to this – we do want in the first place to avoid water footprints altogether. Then, if you have a water footprint, try to reduce it, because water always has a cost.
How can you avoid having a water footprint?
What I said about the Spanish context and cereals – that the water footprint could be avoided in that place – so you could go somewhere else to do the production. And then reduction is clear – you increase efficiency.
The third step is the offsetting piece - how to offset water footprint. You would think that you can offset the water footprint of a certain time in a certain place by compensating for it at certain time in a certain place - but this is almost impossible to do, as there is always a time and space lapse in that equation. And because it is like that, it becomes a value judgement. And we do not want to get into that debate, because we don’t know what constitutes an offset – and we don’t have that sort of political frame to do it.
This is very theoretical, because there is no offset really.
Meanwhile, talks about how we can make a market of water footprint or water offset credits comes up all the time, and I think there might be some possibilities – but that is more my personal opinion. But nobody knows how to do it.
Also, don’t think that through an offset agenda we can have the most impact on more sustainable water use.
While there is a lot of development in that field, we are not engaging in that, because we don’t have the staff or resources to do that, and it is also highly political. These systems are often surrounded by regulatory frameworks and - if not - they become voluntary systems and I don’t see that happening quickly with water.