Precise data on water usage will soon help farmers and policymakers make better decisions on where to grow crops, says Derk Kuiper from the Water Footprint Network, a UN-backed organisation.
Kuiper believes that better information about water usage will lead to more efficient agricultural production as the data can help pinpoint where to grow high-water demand crops that are essential to Europe's food security.
For example, producing crops like wheat and rice, which demand a substantial amount of water, is not efficient in Spain, where temperatures are higher and the sun brighter.
This, he said is "quite a waste of water because you have other regions in Europe that would be much better suited for the production of foodstuffs".
While this kind of debate has not yet officially started, Kuiper is convinced it will soon greatly influence decisions on national food security. "We will see this coming," Kuiper said, adding "there might actually be an opportunity to start opening those discussions at European level".
Kuiper believes the water footprinting methodology can help craft better policies in specific river basins, as the data helps to understand the water consumption of all economic sectors around a particular river or lake.
The method allows to compare the value that different sectors bring to society and the development of strategies to deal with water scarcity and pollution, he explained.
Economics of water footprint
Water footprinting can also play a role as an indicator in the debate on the pricing of ecological services, as well as trade and investment policies, Kuiper added.
The water footprint network has produced a report – which is not yet public – for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on the use of water footprinting as a sustainability indicator in various policy initiatives, both at global and local level.
The network, launched ten years ago, has the support of the WWF and businesses such as Coca-Cola and Nestlé. It hopes to achieve a transition towards fairer and more efficient use of freshwater resources worldwide, as growing industrial activity has intensified competition for water.
Asked about possible ways to offset water consumption, in a similar vein to carbon emissions, Kuiper admitted that this would be almost impossible to achieve. "Talks about how a market of water offset credits are increasing," Kuiper said, "but nobody knows how to do it".
Towards water footprint standard
In the long run, Kuiper hopes a global method will emerge to perform water footprinting assessments across a range of industries. "We hope to bring together the science, practitioners and other stakeholders in the community around water management and drive forward the development of the standard," he said.
An initial version of standards for water footprinting was produced in 2009 in order to bring everybody to the same starting point. A revised version of the manual will be published in February 2011, together with updated data on the water footprint of nations and products.
Focus on agriculture
The lack of good quality datasets, however, remains a major problem in accurately measuring water footprints and is preventing the idea from fulfilling its potential to help localised water management, Kuiper said.
Another challenge is missing information on water use and consumption in sectors other than agriculture and food production, he said. This is because the water footprint and virtual water trade debates originated from food security issues and that is where the main numbers are, he stressed.