Water Footprint: The Road Ahead

By Prof. Arjen Y. Hoekstra 20 April, 2017

Prof. Arjen Hoekstra talks to CWR about hard truths & challenges ahead over water scarcity & over-consumption

Uptake of the water footprint concept has been slow; China & Latin America embracing it more than the 'west'
40% of Europe's water footprint is external; risk of China & India following that path & becoming net water importers
No co has set a serious target; livestock & feed sectors are not transparent; going veggie cuts water footprint by 25%+
Prof. Arjen Y. Hoekstra
Author: Prof. Arjen Y. Hoekstra
Arjen Hoekstra (1967) is Professor in Water Management at the University of Twente, the Netherlands, and Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Hoekstra pioneered in quantifying the water volumes virtually embedded in trade, thus showing the relevance of a global perspective on water use and scarcity. As creator of the water footprint concept, Hoekstra introduced supply-chain thinking in water management. With the development of Water Footprint Assessment he laid the foundation of a new interdisciplinary research field, addressing the relations between water management, consumption and trade. Hoekstra is founder of the Water Footprint Network, was the organization's first Science Director and is now Chair of its Supervisory Board. Hoekstra's scientific publications cover a wide range of topics related to water, food, energy and trade and include a large number of highly cited articles and book chapters. He also developed various educational tools, including the River Basin Game and the Globalization of Water Role Play.
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hoekstra jc wise (1)Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra, founder of the water footprint concept, recently spoke at the JC-WISE water footprint forum, which highlighted the need for Hong Kong to tackle its water footprint. China Water Risk also participated at this event and had the opportunity to sit down with Prof. Hoekstra after the event and talked about hard truths and challenges in the backdrop of global water scarcity.

The concept is not without its detractors. However we think it is still relevant. Check out our review “Water Footprint: Why It Matters”, where we address the main criticisms of the concept.

China Water Risk (CWR): You are touted as the “father of water footprint” and for driving the concept of water as a “global commodity”. Today, water risks are increasingly recognised against a backdrop of protectionism. Given these, one would expect wider embracing of the water footprint concept; has this been the case? Has the development of water footprint been as you expected?

Prof. Hoekstra (AYH): I expected the water footprint to be a very useful concept and it has proven to be so. Progress and uptake have been slow, but it doesn’t mean we have done nothing.

Look at how we have approached climate change – we have not been able to meaningfully reduce our carbon footprint despite knowing about climate change for more than three decades. But there has been great debate and awareness-raising about climate issues. Everybody now knows about it, with governments and companies taking action.

“Water scarcity is a huge problem & it will certainly worsen if we keep growing”

I think with water we are facing a similar, long-term challenge. Water scarcity is a huge problem and it will certainly worsen if we keep growing. As a result, more attention will be generated; but that will fluctuate with political tides. President Trump is of course bad news regarding environmental concerns. This will not only be reflected in climate policy; but also there will be no interest from the US in the coming few years for better water policy or reducing water footprint.

However, there is still an underlying tide of increasing interest among companies and researchers. In the end, we have to respond – not because we like it – but because water scarcity is real. So in that respect I am optimistic; but progress is very slow.

CWR: Which countries do you see leading the drive for environmental issues?

AYH: Interestingly, not so much the “western world”, which we would expect to be ahead of things. Instead, there is more embracing of new concepts such as the water footprint in rapidly developing countries like China and in Latin America.

It is in these regions where young people are looking at the most urgent challenges. They are open in thinking and are looking for new ways of development. In contrast, there are a lot of vested interests and opposition to new things in the “western world”.

CWR: A recent study shows China as the 2nd largest producer of water footprint research; while the Netherlands is in third and the US leads.

AYH: The Netherlands is high on the list because most of the research came from my group. So it’s really the US and China who are taking up the concept.

The US produces a lot of water footprint research because they are a large country and there are a lot of researchers… but the breadth of their interests is still limited. In China, the high volume of water footprint research is due both to the number of researchers but also much broader interests; especially related to policy.

[CWR comment: for more on water footprint research see “Mapping of water footprint research: A bibliometric analysis during 2006–2015]

CWR: Some of your research has shown that the US, China and India are net virtual water exporters; they’re consuming very substantial volumes of water to produce export products, like food, cotton and industrial products. Regarding India and China, do you think that they’ve reached a limit of how much virtual water they can actually export? Will there be a turning point when they will start importing virtual water instead?

AYH: For China and India this risk is particularly substantial. This is because those countries are so densely populated, growing, feeding themselves and yet still exporting virtual water, while facing great water scarcity problems. As such, there is a good chance that they will become net water importers. That said, China and India are well aware of this problem and are pushing for self-sufficiency, which I think is very good.

CWR: But not all countries are following that path. Which would you say are the nations that are currently most reliant on virtual water imports?

AYH: This is Europe as a whole, where 40% of its water footprint lies outside its boundaries. Some European countries even have up to 95% of their water footprints beyond their borders. As a result they are the most vulnerable to increasing water scarcity elsewhere.

Cities also have a large external water footprint. Cities, by definition, are concentrations of people that rely on the hinterlands for their resources. Nowadays even the hinterland is global, so that even cities in relatively wet regions depend on food from remote water-scarce areas.

40% of Europe’s water footprint lies outside its boundaries

(click to enlarge)

eu water import map

CWR: You have advocated water caps and also river basin management as a way of managing water resources. Could you perhaps clarify the concepts of water as a local resource but also water as a global commodity?

AYH: On the one hand, water is a local resource because it is too bulky and cannot be transported over large distances. On the other hand, water can be used locally to produce goods for the global market. So in that sense water is a global resource.

And therefore global competition over water is inherently linked to local water resources. There are many places with intensive irrigation for agriculture, groundwater extraction and pollution, rivers running dry… all due to large scale production for exports. So there is a direct link between local water problems and global market demands.

CWR: Is there any country that is managing, or starting to manage water resources at that level?

AYH: I don’t think there is any country in the world yet sufficiently aware of this issue. In Spain they have instituted regulations which make water footprint assessments a requirement before making a river basin plan. This entails investigations on where the water goes in the river basin and whether it will be exported. So in that sense, there is some intention in certain countries, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to action.

CWR: We could also look at solutions from the consumption perspective. What role do individuals have?

AYH: The water footprint concept shows that consumers create demand for water-intensive products, so the consumers do have a role. By choosing what they eat they can easily reduce their water footprint. Moreover consumers have a role as voters. Governments have a large role in regulation – after all, water is a public good and it should be regulated.

That is why we need water footprint caps per river basin which delimit how much water is available for allocation. Then there needs to be water footprint permits to define who can have how much of the “pie”.

CWR: This will obviously affect industry…

AYH: It will affect industry because they will get some part of the “pie”. In this regard, I strongly believe that companies should set water footprint benchmarks for their processes and products. These benchmarks could also be set and enforced by the government. As such, governments would simply restrict water access to any activity which exceeds a reasonable water footprint benchmark based on best practice or best technology.

CWR: China already has a few pilots on water trading between sectors. It is also focused on efficiency; but sometimes increasing efficiency doesn’t work without a total cap, is that right?

AYH: That is true. That is why I strongly advocate for both the benchmarks for products and activities which indicate efficiency and a cap that sets the maximum. We cannot have the one without the other. Setting a cap is most essential.

CWR: Speaking about efficiencies, many companies have efficiency benchmarks per product, but they do not really have total reduction targets. What do you think?

“no company… has a serious water reduction target”

AYH: There is in fact no company that has a serious water reduction target. There are many companies that have water reduction targets but they are always aiming to reduce amounts of water use that are already minor.

CWR: Indeed, much of industry’s water footprint is beyond the factory wall, in the upstream raw materials…

AYH: Generally for companies the water footprint is largest in their supply chain: in agriculture, forestry, mining… These companies can green whatever they want in their operations but these efforts are generally not very effective at the larger scale. Some measures to improve operations can be costly, while improvements in the supply chain, particularly in agriculture, are often cheaper and more substantial.

[CWR comment: A number of regulations have been put into place in China aiming to address raw material risks but some industries are still in denial]

CWR: On a different note, China is aiming to move away from meat through dietary guidelines, livestock breeding standards and livestock industry consolidation. These will have global implications because meat is a big part of the global market. Would you like to expand on this?

“…it should be the #1 priority for consumers & govts to regulate that sector [agriculture]”

AYH: Agriculture is the largest water user in the world; and in any country. Within the agricultural sector livestock products are the most water-intensive. One-third of humanity’s overall water footprint relates to animal products. Therefore any savings in that sector counts the most and it should be the #1 priority for consumers and governments to regulate that sector. We estimate that, dependent on the country, the water footprint of national consumption can be reduced by 25% to 40% if meat consumption were replaced by other products.

CWR: But the sector is not transparent…

AYH: They are completely un-transparent. The big issue around the water footprint of livestock is that a huge amount of water is used for feed production, but there is no tracing or transparency over the supply chain of animal feed. Most livestock we eat nowadays is industrialised. This means feed concentrates are being produced in factories, with ingredients coming from anywhere and from supply chains which shift all the time.

So unless we have locally-produced livestock fed by grass or homemade grains, it is very difficult to estimate the water footprint of the feed for different animals.

“…there is no tracing or transparency over the supply chain of animal feed”

“…we estimate that up to 40% of an individual’s water footprint can be reduced if meat consumption were replaced by other products”

Feed table

CWR: The picture doesn’t look particularly rosy. China and India are rapidly developing yet still exporting virtual water, and if this switches without finding a business unusual way forward, it will come down to other regions to export their water.  Are you optimistic that countries can all work together to look at water as a global commodity and start thinking about our water resource planning on a global level?

AYH: China is already gradually externalising its water footprint to Africa. It’s not yet so major but it’s already happening. That is benefiting China and probably a few politicians and business men in Africa, but at the cost of local farmers and food production for the local market. In order to be really beneficial, in the long term and for all, international trade needs to be subject to rules around sustainable production and equitable allocation of natural resources.

Looking ahead, we must be optimistic because only then can we actually put all our energy on tackling the issues. Realistically, current developments are pointing in the wrong direction; but there are always positive signs, and those are what we need to grab onto. People are increasingly aware of water risks around the world and there will be more action as the problems become more urgent.

“… current developments are pointing in the wrong direction; but there are always positive signs, and those are what we need to grab onto”

National WF convergence

Haven’t been following Prof. Arjen Hoekstra’s work on water footprint? Here are five key readings we recommend!

Further Reading

  • Water Footprint: Why It Matters – Despite growing recognition, water footprint is not without its detractors. China Water Risk’s Woody Chan reviews the concept and gives five reasons why it is still relevant for policy-making in China
  • Fast Fashion: Sucking Aquifers Dry? – Groundwater is over-extracted to grow cotton. As the world’s largest importer of cotton, is it China’s fault? Or is fast fashion to blame? China Water Risk’s Tan explores trends in the growth across major brands, China’s imports & global cotton production
  • Water Flows In China’s Grid – Embedded water is everywhere and that includes electricity. China Water Risk’s Hubert Thieriot on recent findings that show how and where virtual water flows through the grid. Will this change how China’s grid develops?
  • China’s Increasing Use Of Public Environmental Data – China is trying to develop a green credit rating system. Dr Guo Peiyuan, a member of China Financial Association’s Green Finance Expert Committee, expands on publicly available environmental data & how it can help
  • FreshWater Watch: Citizen Science At Work – Earthwatch Institute’s Benita Chick explores how the public can work with scientists to fast-track 11 years worth of water research. Find out what local and global impacts such programmes can make
  • Securing Water For Hong Kong’s Future – The Jockey Club Water Initiative on Sustainability & Engagement (JC-WISE) aims to secure long-term water sustainability for Hong Kong. CWR sat down with Dr Frederick Lee of the University of Hong Kong
  • China’s Hidden Water Flows – Prof Hubacek & Dr. Feng contributing authors of ”Virtual Scarce Water in China” share key findings. Find out why developed but water-scarce regions like Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai are contributing to the country’s water depletion
  • Risks Shifting Beyond the Wall – In China’s printing & dyeing sector centralised wastewater treatment brings centralised pollution, Ma Yingying of the Institute of Environment & Public Affairs tells China Water Risk. Lax supervision & vague responsibilities between factories & treatment facilities leave brands are exposed
  • Can China’s “Milky-ways” Continue? – Consumption of dairy products in China has notably increased over the last 16 years. China Water Risk’s McGregor, Li & Chan take a look if these “milky-ways” can continue and also how much leading dairy companies (Chinese & foreign) are disclosing
  • Corporate Disclosure: Can We See Clearly Now? – Global climate targets are connected to day-to-day operations of companies and with COP 22 underway China Water Risk’s Dawn McGregor reflects on how clearly we are seeing corporate disclosure, the obstacles in our way & if there will be a sunny day
  • Water: Habits & Actions – What are your water habits? Even giving up chocolate for one week can positively impact our waters as Patricia Dwyer, Founder & Director of The Purpose Business Group, tells us. See what other changes you can make