23 Jun 2009

Water Footprints Are Stupid

Lynne has a post on waterfootprinting, and it got me to thinking of the reason why footprints matter or should be used.

They should be used when we need to know the non-price impact of a behavior, e.g., our "carbon footprint" tells us how much harm we are doing to the environment. We do not worry about "coffee footprints" because we pay the full price of coffee when we buy it.*

Anyway, the whole idea of (or need for) water footprints stems from underpricing water, and water is MUCH easier to price for sustainability. First, because water supply and demand is LOCAL. Second, because water is a renewable resource that we merely reuse. (We are mining and emitting fossil carbon...)

Bottom Line: A water price that keeps demand in line with supply is sustainable, and a sustainable price does not require that we pay attention to any other measures of water use (i.e., footprints).
* Purists may say that we are not paying the price of indigenous land rights, seed biodiversity, the carbon from transport, etc., but let's leave those costs to separate footprints.


  1. WaterSource/WaterBank23 Jun 2009, 14:11:00

    DZ: In many areas we are mining water. CA in particular will begin to HEAVILY MINE ground water due to their cut in surface supplies. CA aquifers can expect to experience even faster depletions than those that occurred on the South Platte, Arkansas and Rio Grande Rivers.


  2. I would always think that what matters gets measures. However, there doesn't seem to be a point in measuring this, as you say. And the fact is, even with the prevailing prices, big users are probably the most efficient anyway.

  3. While I'm not sure how useful, ultimately, water footprints will be for business water auditing purposes across multi-locational production chains, for which they were originally developed, there are useful benefits that are not necessarily economic in nature.

    For instance, the total water use estimate derived from calculating one's water footprint, including embedded "virtual water," gives people insight into how vital water is to almost every product and service (e.g., thermoelectricity) they use. Water footprints are a way to raise water consciousness in the public and build an informed consumer-citizen base.

    If we are all interested in seeing more sensible water use and policy in the U.S., including more accurate water measurement/reporting (groundwater?) , water metering, better pricing of water, large-scale water conservation and efficiency measures, and so forth, it is important to be able to engage with the public to increase political will. Water footprints are an attempt to do this.

    By the way, unsustainable water mining of aquifers happens all over the U.S. Let's not forget places as diverse as lands over the Ogallala (W. TX & panhandle, KS, OK) to northern GA to locations in water-rich states like VT and MI.

    For more thoughts (and debate material) on water footprinting, go to the big daddy, Water Footprint Network (waterfootprint.org) and my organization's site (h2oconserve.org).

  4. The biggest problem I see with the whole "footprint" business is that at the moment a set of complex problems are being reduced to a bunch of unsubstantiated graffito. Some day there may well be an agreed upon, peer reviewed intellectual framework to make these comparisons about carbon, water, ergs, etc. At the moment, is is just fond noise. (young-uns, review the archaic definition of the word "fond").

  5. Just as requested MK, The Water Footprint Network is developing water footprint baselines/standard measurements based on an "agreed upon, peer reviewed intellectual framework" for business, countries, and even individuals. They are academics after all.

    I agree that that the way water footprints are now being bandied about without substantiation is useless as a tool, while I would refer to my post above for its other potential (and more vulgar) qualities.

    Again, check out www.waterfootprint.org for the water footprint's theoretical underpinnings as well as the beginning of its practical applications. They are generating many reports.


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