Do you know how much water was used to grow your food and to produce your clothes and the things you buy?
It is a surprising amount. You may not see this ‘invisible’ water, but it accounts for most of the water you use, far more than you use from the tap. Our use of water is not limited to kitchens, bathrooms and gardens. On a daily basis, we contribute to the consumption of large quantities of water when buying various products, from the food we eat, paper and cotton to biofuel. This way, we indirectly affect water resources throughout the world.
By measuring water footprints, we can get a clear picture of how water is used in today’s consumer society, in the same way that carbon footprints measure contributions to climate change.
Your water footprint is the amount of water you consume in your daily life, including the water used to grow the food you eat, to produce the energy you use and for all of the products in your daily life – your books, music, house, car, furniture and the clothes you wear.
Understanding our water consumption can help us provide a solution to one of our most pressing problems: making sure there is enough water to sustain all living things on our planet.
In our global economy, each consumer on average ‘eats’ as much as 5 000 litres of water every day (ranging from 1 500 to 10 000 litres per day, depending where you live and what you eat). Everything we use or consume has a water footprint, sometimes close to where we live but often in river basins far away, even in other countries. Each ingredient in a product may come from a different place. Take, for example a cookie, which might have wheat from Canada, sugar from Brazil, vanilla from Madagascar and eggs from the local farmer. This one cookie is consuming and polluting water from a number of river basins, in countries around the world.
Water is a renewable, but finite, resource. There is the same amount on earth today as there was when the dinosaurs roamed. As our population grows, pressure on our limited, available supply is mounting. This is exacerbated by pollution and the fact that there are seasonal and geographic differences in the amount of water available. Today, in many locations, we are using more fresh water than the earth’s natural limits can sustain.
Calculate your water footprint
What’s the water footprint of your current lifestyle? You might be surprised!
What you can do
We can all make a positive contribution to solving the water crisis.
Take a look at our footprint calculators to find out what in your daily life most affects your water footprint. You can do a quick calculation, or continue to the extended calculator if you want to find out more. Then, takes steps to reduce your water footprint or support activities that help others make water use more sustainable. Your choices can improve living conditions and protect plants and animals that depend upon water, worldwide.
Making just a few changes can significantly reduce your water footprint. For example, the water footprint of 200 grammes of beef is the equivalent to 47 eight-minute showers and uses four times more water than the same amount of chicken meat. If a couple were to eat chicken instead of beef, they would reduce their water footprint by as much as 450 000 litres over a year. Vegetables have an even smaller water footprint, as does tea compared to coffee. You do not necessarily need to become vegetarian – or never eat beef – yet, by varying your diet and choosing to eat food with a smaller footprint more frequently, and by choosing the products you buy wisely, you can make a large difference.
Of course it is not all in your hands. The way the products we consume are produced also affects the water footprint. Encouraging companies to disclose the water footprint and the sustainability of their products will give you more information and will encourage responsible water use. Letting your governmental representatives know that you care about water and want it to be used and managed in a sustainable way, where you live and everywhere in the world, is an important step toward being a good global water citizen.
Find out more about the hidden water in the products we use daily from around the world.
If you would like to help us spread the word about the water footprint and support our work with companies and governments, you can donate here.
Calculate your water footprint
What’s the water footprint of your current lifestyle? You might be surprised!
Product water footprint
What is the water footprint of a product?
The water footprint of a product is the amount of water that is consumed and polluted in all processing stages of its production. A product water footprint tells us how much pressure that product has put on freshwater resources. It can be measured in cubic metres of water per tonne of production, or litres per kilogram, gallons per pound or per bottle of milk.
By measuring the volume and source of water consumed in the production of a product and the volume of water needed to assimilate pollutants so that water quality standards are met, we can get a picture of how a specific product contributes to the growing concerns of water scarcity and degraded water quality. It also allows us to compare different products for their relative contribution to these critical water issues.
The water footprint of a final product, e.g., a pair of jeans, is the summation of the water footprint of each step, or process, required to produce that product. A pair of jeans will require cotton to be grown, ginning and spinning of the fibres, weaving, sewing and wet processing of the fabric to ultimately have the finished product. Each step has a direct water footprint and an indirect water footprint. The direct water footprint of one process becomes the indirect water footprint of the next process. In this way, the full amount of water consumed or polluted is taken into account in the product water footprint.
Is your product resource efficient?
By measuring the water footprint of a product in volumes of water per unit of production, it is possible to assess how efficiently the product has been produced. Or, another way of saying this is the product water footprint tells us how productively freshwater resources are being used – that is, how many units of production have resulted from each litre of water used. This measure of resource efficiency can be applied to both the amount of water consumed, the green and blue water footprint, and the amount of assimilation capacity used, the grey water footprint. If we produce a product with a smaller grey water footprint, we have put less pressure on the freshwater resource and contributed less to water quality degradation.
As many as three billion people are already living in areas with water scarcity and river basins worldwide have declining water quality; if we are going to feed, clothe and house all the people on the planet we need to be more efficient with our water resources. The product water footprint can help us identify where there are opportunities for water footprint reduction and improvements in resource efficiency.
Water footprint benchmarks can be set by looking at the water footprint resulting from the use of best practices or best available technologies or by selecting the water footprint achieved by best performers in a particular sector. Water footprint benchmarks can be used to set targets for water footprint reductions in an individual process, e.g., the hot-rolling of steel, for a product, a sector or a company.
Water footprint benchmarks can provide useful information to governments and can help us achieve sustainable development goals. By focusing investments, whether in training, infrastructure or better management practices, on the poor performers, the overall water footprint of production can be reduced, thereby alleviating the pressure we put on freshwater resources and making the water we do use more productive.
A water footprint can also be used to measure the role of a product in the economy. By relating the green, blue and grey water footprint to economic measures such as profits per unit of product, jobs or the proportion of the GDP created, the water footprint can show us the full range of economic benefits coming from the products produced in an area. This information can contribute valuable insights on how we can meet different societal goals through allocation of water resources across different water uses and users.
Is your product environmentally sustainable?
The water footprint doesn’t just tell us how much water is used to produce a product; the water footprint occurs at a specific place during a specific time. This is important because there are variations in the amount of water and assimilation capacity available in different places and during different times of the year. A water footprint, which occurs in a water rich location or during the wet season still puts the same pressure (volumes consumed) on water resources but that pressure may not be putting the overall water use in a river basin or from an aquifer beyond the maximum sustainability threshold.
To understand the sustainability of a product’s water footprint, we need to look at the cumulative water footprint in comparison to the local water resources. In this case, we use the volume of water consumed or assimilation capacity used during a month, or a season, or year. Combined together, the water footprint of all production in a particular location or time period tells us whether we’ve crossed the sustainability threshold and our product is unsustainable.
How do we use the water footprint of products?
Knowing the water footprint of the products and goods we produce and consume, allows:
Check out our national explorer to see which countries have a higher water footprint and to compare countries.
Find out how you can improve the water footprint of the products you produce in our business section.
Find out how you country can better manage its national water footprint in our national section.
Compare how much water is used to make a variety of products so that you can choose to reduce your water footprint.
Water footprint of crop and animal products: a comparison
The projected increase in the production and consumption of animal products is likely to put further pressure on the globe’s freshwater resources. The size and characteristics of the water footprint vary across animal types and production systems.
The water footprint of meat from beef cattle (15 400 m 3 /ton as a global average) is much larger than the footprints of meat from sheep (10 400 m 3 /ton), pig (6000 m 3 /ton), goat (5 500 m 3 /ton) or chicken (4 300 m 3 /ton). The global average water footprint of chicken egg is 3 300 m 3 /ton, while the water footprint of cow milk amounts to 1000 m 3 /ton.
Per ton of product, animal products generally have a larger water footprint than crop products. The same is true when we look at the water footprint per calorie. The average water footprint per calorie for beef is twenty times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. When we look at the water requirements for protein, it has been found that the water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is about 1.5 times larger than for pulses. For beef, the water footprint per gram of protein is 6 times larger than for pulses. In the case of fat, butter has a relatively small water footprint per gram of fat, even lower than for oil crops. All other animal products, however, have larger water footprints per gram of fat when compared to oil crops. From a freshwater resource perspective, it is more efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.
The water footprint of some selected food products from crop and animal origin.
Global animal production requires about 2422 Gm 3 of water per year (87.2% green, 6.2% blue, 6.6% grey water). One third of this volume is for the beef cattle sector; another 19% for the dairy cattle sector. Most of the total volume of water (98%) refers to the water footprint of the feed for the animals. Drinking water for the animals, service water and feed mixing water account only for 1.1%, 0.8% and 0.03%, respectively.
Mekonnen, M.M. and Hoekstra, A.Y. (2010) The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products, Value of Water Research Report Series No.48, UNESCO-IHE