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Water footprint: juggling unsustainability and inequalities

Water Footprint


 By Caroline Larocque, Project Manager at Réseau des femmes en environnement and coordinator of the «Diminuer les rejets toxiques dans l'eau: j'agis aujourd'hui» project.


Pour lire l'article en français, cliquez ici.


According to the Government of Quebec (2018), every person in Quebec uses an average of 570 litres of fresh water every single day. Although these numbers are impressive, did you know they excluded the 1,000 to 6,000 litres used for food production (Turton, 2000)? This huge amount of water is known as virtual water.


What do virtual water and water footprint mean?

To better understand the concept of virtual water, it is first important to understand what water footprint means.

The concept of water footprint was created by Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra in 2002 and is now normalised by the Water Footprint Network. Expressed in cubic meters (m3), the water footprint is a measure of the impact of human activities on water. This includes domestic, agricultural and industrial activities. In Canada, an individual's water footprint is of 6,400 litres per day (Mekonnen & Hoekstra, 2011). 70 % of this amount are used for agricultural purposes, 20 % for industrial purposes, 8 % for energy production, and only 2 % for domestic uses (Eau Secours,  2021).



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How is water used across the globe? Water in numbers (translated from Eau Secours)


From the 6,400 L of water consumed daily by Canadians, 79 % are from local sources and 21 % represent water that is used abroad to produce imported products (Mekonnen & Hoekstra, 2011). This means that 21 % of water consumed by Canadians come from other countries. These numbers show that in order to measure the water footprint of a given nation, it is essential to know how much fresh water is required to produce various goods and services. This amount of water is what we call virtual water.


Virtual water is the total amount of water embodied in the production of agricultural or industrial goods or services.


Beside the consumption of fresh water required for domestic use, it is important to be able to calculate the amount of water embodied in the production of various goods and services. We consider it to be virtual because this water is used in another country although the goods and services are consumed right here. Often, this means that fresh water is consumed in a developing country to produce goods that will be exported towards richer countries where they will be used. Virtual water represents the amount of water associated to the production of goods and services, and thus leads to an exchange of water between two countries or territories.


Inequalities and water shortages

Methodologies used to calculate amounts of virtual water used has allowed to put forth a major issue. It demonstrates that some countries are highly dependent of other country's water resources. Some water-poor countries have an economy based on the production and exportation of thirsty goods such as coffee or cotton. In many cases, there isn't enough water on a given territory to cover minimal domestic consumption since a large amount of water is used to produce goods that will be exported.


The Case of Cotton

Let's investigate the case of a T-Shirt bought in Québec, made from Indian cotton. India is indeed one of the main cotton producers although it faces severe water shortages. The production of cotton needs large amount of water: about 10,000 L of water are required to produce 1 kg of cotton. Water used to irrigate cotton cultures fosters the economy but can't be used by local populations for daily consumption. According to The Guardian (2015), water consumed for cotton exportations in India in 2013 alone would have been enough to provide 100 L of water daily to 85 % of India's 1,24 billion inhabitants (while more than 100 million people in India do not have access to fresh water).

A 2005 study of the Institute for Water Education on the footprint of cotton has also demonstrated that European Union consumers represent 20 % of the reason why the Aral Sea, located in Central Asia, is drying up.

Does this mean that we must stop purchasing cotton shirts? Not necessarily, but it shows that when we buy such goods, we can indirectly contribute to water shortages in other countries. Also, textile production is known to discharge large amounts of wastewater filled with toxic substances directly into local water streams (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017). This shows that the fast fashion industry leads to severe consequences in several countries.


What about the circular economy of water?

We are increasingly interested in the integration of circular economy to water footprint calculations. Although the cycle of water suggests an infinite cycle of water resources, it is essential to remember that water might be contaminated or cause soil erosion in the process. The cycle of water is thus not as simple as it seems. As of now, the water footprint calculation methodology does not fully take circular economy into consideration.


The circular water footprint represents water that can be harvested repeatedly with limited environmental impacts (Sauvé, S., Lamontagne, S. et al., 2021).


If circular economy is considered, a small water footprint that comes from a non-renewable water source has a greater impact than a larger water footprint that comes from a sustainable renewable water cycle (Sauvé, S., Lamontagne, S. et al., 2021). To better integrate this circular water concept, it would be best to calculate the total water footprint and deduct the circular footprint, which is the water that has minimal impact as it comes from sustainable sources. This would result in a non-sustainable, non-circular water footprint which is what we should aim to minimize.


What's better: a short shower or local water consumption?

This circular water footprint underlines the fact that we too often focus on good practices that allow small water savings like taking a short shower instead of fostering more impactful choices that have a greater potential in terms of environmental impacts, such as reducing our consumption of foods grown in warm climate like coffee.

In a water-rich environment such as Quebec, shorter showers are considered a gain on an energy consumption standpoint. Shorter showers also mean that fewer chemicals will be required at the water treatment plant. Also, water could end up being contaminated by some of the ingredients of soaps and shampoos. However, on a strict water footprint point of view, the use of water is circular as the totality of water used for the shower will be returned to the stream in similar conditions (Sauvé, S., Lamontagne, S. et al., 2021).

In comparison, the reduction potential is much higher when it comes to choosing local foods that have been irrigated from renewable water sources instead of foods that were grown in warm countries where irrigation most often comes from non-renewable sources.


How to reduce our water footprint?

First and foremost, it is important to reduce waste and direct water consumption. However, it's essential to also consider our indirect consumption. If water footprint and virtual water put forth inequalities and geographical imbalances regarding water distribution on Earth, solutions aren't that easy to identify. One of the ways in which we can foster change is by avoiding water sources that are non circular and thus non sustainable to have a positive impact on the environment.

At a national level, countries can improve laws and regulations and adopt policies that encourage a sustainable management of water resources. Different types of programs and policies have been used such as royalties paid by corporation which use water directly or indirectly. Exchange mechanisms where firms can buy or sell water quality credits or pollution rights have also been put into place.

At a corporate level, there is an increasing number of organisations working with watershed management groups to improve their practices and reduce their water footprint. However, efforts are still insufficient.

The case of cotton and imported goods such as coffee have also demonstrated that it is essential to inform and support communities. Indeed, if everyone had a better understanding of the consequences of their consumption choices on water resources, they'd be able to make more conscious choices and avoid waste and overconsumption. These more conscious choices include:

  • Chose foods that come from Quebec
  • Favour vegetarian food options rather than meet
  • Reduce consumption of imported coffee and chocolate
  • Consume less or make sure to increase the life expectancy of our goods (ex. clothes)


Which foods need the most water to produce? | World Economic Forum

How Thirsty is Our Food? Water Footprint Network. © Statista


Here are a few resources to learn more about water footprint: