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Water footprint: Help or hindrance?

Ashok Kumar Chapagain
Freshwater Programmes, WWF-UK, Godalming, Surrey, UK; achapagain@wwf.org.uk
David Tickner
Freshwater Programmes, WWF-UK, Godalming, Surrey, UK; dtickner@wwf.org.uk

ABSTRACT: In response to increasing concerns about pressures on global water resources, researchers have developed a range of water footprint concepts and tools. These have been deployed for a variety of purposes by businesses, governments and NGOs. A debate has now emerged about the value, and the shortcomings of using water footprint tools to support better water resources management. This paper tracks the evolution of the water footprint concept from its inception in the 1990s and reviews major applications of water footprint tools, including those by the private sector. The review suggests that water footprint assessments have been an effective means of raising awareness of global water challenges among audiences 'outside the water box' including decision makers in industry and government. Water footprint applications have also proved to be useful for the assessment of strategic corporate risks relating to water scarcity and pollution. There is evidence that these applications may help to motivate economically important stakeholders to contribute to joint efforts to mitigate shared water-related risks, although there have been few examples to date of such approaches leading to tangible improvements in water resources management at the local and river basin scales. Water footprint assessments have so far had limited influence on the development or implementation of improved public policy for water resources management and there is reason to believe that water footprint approaches may be a distraction in this context. Suggestions that international trade and economic development frameworks might be amended in light of global water footprint assessments have not yet been articulated coherently. Nevertheless, if used carefully, water footprint tools could contribute to better understanding of the connections between water use, economic development, business practice and social and environmental risks. In light of the review, a set of 'golden rules' is suggested for using water footprint tools in the broader context of awareness-raising, management of shared water-related risks and public policy development.

KEYWORDS: Water footprint, corporate water risk, water scarcity, public policy, freshwater management