Will Water Footprints be the Next "Energy Star"?

James Owen in Stockholm, Sweden
for National Geographic News
November 27, 2009

This story is part of a special series that explores the global water crisis. For more clean water news, photos, and information, visit National Geographic's Freshwater Web site.

Save Water … Drink More Beer. The irony of this drinker's joke isn't lost on experts calculating our global use of H2O.

Like their cousin the carbon footprint, water footprints are one of the latest methods scientists and policy makers are using to assess humanity's impact on the planet. And now businesses are starting to use water footprinting as well.

A water footprint measures the total amount of water it takes for a company to manufacture and transport a product, or for a city, country, or business to operate.

Calculating water footprints can help businesses and communities better understand and prepare for the impacts of global water scarcity, according to experts.

And if this so-called embedded water information ends up on a product label—somewhat similar to the U.S. government's Energy Star label that indicates energy efficiency, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's WaterSense label, which measures water efficiency—consumers may be able to choose products based on water footprints as well.

Individuals can already learn how much liquid it takes to fuel their daily routines with water footprint calculators, like the one developed by the nonprofit Water Footprint Network (WFN).

Exceptionally water-intensive products and food items include beef, coffee, and cotton. For example 2 pounds (1 kilogram) of beef requires 4,227 gallons (16,000 liters) of water to produce, once you consider the water needed to grow feed and process the meat, according to WFN. Likewise, 776 gallons (2,900 liters) of water is needed to make a cotton shirt.

The U.S. has the biggest water footprint per capita, at 766,098 gallons (2.9 million liters) per person each year, according to WFN. And across the Pacific, 65 percent of Japans total water footprint comes from beyond its borders in the form of imported products, the group says.

Beer Footprints

Now major corporations are warming to the idea of working with WFN and its partner organizations to measure the footprints of their operations and manufacturing processes

Beer giant SABMiller, one of the first to sign on, unveiled the first detailed corporate water footprint at this year's World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden. The company said it will use the results to help manage its water use.

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