The Water Footprint Versus The Water Handprint

By William Sarni 18 September, 2020

With water stewardship strategies stalling, it is time to switch to the water handprint says Water Foundry CEO Sarni

'Neutral' or 'positive' strategies used for carbon don't translate well for water, as water isn't fungible & is multi-dimensional; the alternative & common approach of a water footprint is limiting
With corporate water stewardship stalling with the water footprint, it is time to move to the water handprint - the positive impact at a collective level; can learn lessons from ICT sector
This approach re-frames water stewardship, from an investment to mitigate water-related risks to an opportunity to grow businesses while simultaneously improving communities & the environment

This article was originally published on GreenBiz on 19 Aug 2020. You can see the article here.

Corporate water stewardship is dominated by water footprint strategies such as replenish, water neutral, water positive, etc. While carbon and climate strategies lend themselves to a strategy to become “neutral” or “positive” with respect to emissions across a company’s value chain, this does not translate well to water.

“Neutral” or “positive” strategies used for carbon do not translate well to water, as it isn’t fungible…

The reasons are straightforward: Carbon is fungible (a ton of carbon in the U.S. is the same as it is elsewhere), and carbon does not have multiple dimensions, unlike water, which has economic, environmental, social and spiritual dimensions.


A couple of articles have been on my mind and finally coalesced around this topic of water footprint as limiting to a corporate water strategy.

The 2017 Environmental Law Institute article “Big Data’s Big Handprint,” by Stephen Harper from Intel, discusses the value of big data’s handprint as having a positive impact on solving problems such as energy and climate.

The article makes the case that the information communication technology (ICT) sector is part of the solutions to energy and climate issues. It offers a broader view beyond exclusively focusing on the water footprint of the sector.

…current water footprint approach is limiting corporate water strategies…

…instead, should move to the water handprint

But the key point is that while there is a focus on the energy, water and carbon footprint of data centers, the “bigger, more positive story regarding big data and the environment concerns the opposite of the footprint. The handprint, the positive environmental impact, of big data and the Internet of Things ecosystem concerns how they can reduce the footprint of other economic sectors and society as a whole.”

The article cites the 2015 “Smarter 2030 Report” regarding ICT and climate change, which concludes that “projects that widespread application of the right ICT technologies could produce a 20 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared to business as usual. The handprint of ICT applications, on average, is seven times their footprint.”

Imagine thinking this way about water. What if we focused on the environmental and social impact of ICT and other sectors in solving water — their handprint — and not just on their footprint?

The second article, “From Corporate Water Risk to Value Creation,” which I coauthored with former Anheuser-Busch InBev water executive Bert Share, frames why water stewardship has stalled. In the article, we made the case that water stewardship is stalled because it is transactional and not transformative. We continue to build out this thinking and business case for going beyond current stewardship strategies.

This approach re-frames water stewardship from risk mitigation to growth opportunity

One of our key points is that water stewardship, to date, has been framed as an investment to mitigate water-related risks, rather than an opportunity to grow businesses while simultaneously improving the well-being of communities and the environment. Unfortunately, corporations spend more money and allocate greater resources on growth strategies versus risk mitigation strategies.

A key part of most stewardship strategies is the focus on water footprint targets, whether in operations or across a value chain. This focus on a corporate water footprint limits both the potential value creation to a company and also the positive impact strong water stewardship could have on society, employees and other stakeholders.

The impact that a corporation can have on contributing to solving water challenges (such as scarcity, quality, access to water, sanitation and hygiene, and conservation) goes beyond reducing its water footprint through replenishment or by encouraging replenishment, “water positive” behavior and collective action within a watershed or across its value chain. Reducing water use and participating in collective actions for conservation within watersheds are table stakes. Companies and industry sectors, for the most part, don’t leverage what they do best to solve water challenges.

Can learn lessons on handprint strategies from the ICT sector

For example, there are lessons to be learned from the ICT sector in how it positions the sector as having a positive impact in addressing energy efficiency and carbon emissions that goes beyond reducing their own footprint.

A few examples are the Digital Energy and Sustainability Campaign (DESSC), which mobilizes the ICT sector on solving energy and sustainability challenges; the recently launched Digital Climate Alliance, which intends to promote digital solutions for climate solutions and innovation; and the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), which quantifies the positive impact that the ICT sector has in energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. Another interesting example is from BASF, detailed in its “Value-to-Society: Measurement and monetary valuation of BASF’s impacts in society” (PDF).

Adopting a corporate strategy that quantifies the positive contributions that certain products and services have in addressing the water quality and availability would drive more creative and impactful solutions to water scarcity, poor quality, access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene. This is out-of-the-box thinking compared with current water stewardship strategies and narratives focused on reducing water footprints and collective action programs.

I propose that the concept of water footprint should be replaced by the “water handprint,” a phrase that better captures the full value of corporate contributions that solve water challenges and unlock innovative thinking.

I suspect thinking of impact in those terms would drive greater corporate investment in water strategies and innovation as opposed to water stewardship, which is viewed primarily as reducing risk and/or a corporate social responsibility initiative.

Further Reading

  • Treading Water: Corporate Responses To Rising Water Challenges – From setting water targets to engaging value chains, companies are improving key aspects of water management but incremental action is no longer enough. CDP’s James Lott brings us key findings from their latest report
  • Role Of Businesses In Water Conservation – With the backdrop of Singapore’s industrial water challenges, Professor Asit Biswas & Dr Cecilia Tortajada show what Unilever & Nestle are doing on water management but also the behavioural challenges they face
  • Innovating Water Stewardship Through Business Ecosystems – William Sarni, water stewardship expert, on the need for innovation in water strategies in order to better position for 21st Century water risks. Sarni points to “business ecosystems” as the driver for this innovation and value creation
  • Water Stewardship: The Impact To Date – A new report finds there has been little evolution from business -as-usual in regards to water management. What behaviours need to change? How can this be achieved? We sat down with report authors James Dalton from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) & Peter Newborne from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)
  • Beyond The Wall & Into The Watershed – Reducing your own factory’s water use is all well & good but what do you do when your basin is being impacted? Ecolab’s Ting He, Nestlé’s Qi Zhang & AWS’ Zhenzhen Xu provide examples on how to move into the watershed
  • Green Clouds One Day – How does watching online videos exacerbate our climate crisis? Are big tech brands like BAT and FAAG doing enough to source more renewable energy? CWR’s Chan reviews the landscape – it looks like we will see “green clouds” one day

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William Sarni
Author: William Sarni
Will Sarni is an internationally recognized thought leader on water strategy and innovation. He has authored numerous books and articles and presented on: the value of water, innovations in digital water technology, the circular economy and the energy-water-food nexus. He has been a water strategy advisor to private and public-sector enterprises and NGOs for his entire career. He has worked with multinational companies across a range of industry sectors in evaluating the technical viability and market potential of innovative water technologies, market entry strategies and M&A programs. He is the author of: "Corporate Water Strategies" (Earthscan 2011, and in Chinese by Shanghai Jiao Tong University Press 2013); "Water Tech – A Guide to Investment, Innovation and Business Opportunities in the Water Sector" (Sarni, W. and Pechet, T., Routledge 2013); and "Beyond the Energy – Water – Food Nexus: New Strategies for 21st Century Growth" (Dō Sustainability 2015). He is currently working on the forthcoming books, "Water Stewardship and Business Value: Creating Abundance from Scarcity" (Sarni, W., and Grant, D., Routledge 2018) and "Creating 21st Century Abundance through Public Policy Innovation: Moving Beyond Business as Usual" (Sarni, W. and Koch, G., Greenleaf Publishing 2018). Sarni is a Board Member of 10.10.10 ( and ASSET ( and Founder of He was a 2016 X-PRIZE Bold Visioneer for the Safe Drinking Water Team and is on the: Scientific Program Committee for Stockholm World Water Week; Executive Council of NOAA's National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS); Editorial Board of the Journal of Water Security; and a Technical Advisor for the Climate Bonds Initiative: Nature-Based Solutions for Climate and Water Resilience.
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