Virtual water: the new carbon footprint


This week The Guardian reported on the new environmental campaign to get us to recognise our ‘water footprint’ – in other words, we are now being asked to factor into everything we consume the amount of water it would have taken to produce.

Water, it seems, is the new frontier in environmental campaigning. The WWF this week released a report entitled, UK Water Footprint: the impact of the UK's food and fibre consumption on global water resources. The report, timed to coincide with World Water week, highlights that:

[W]hile each person in the UK drinks, hoses, flushes and washes their way through around 150 litres of mains water a day, we consume about 30 times as much in 'virtual' water used to produce the food we eat and the clothes we wear. This is equivalent to about 58 bathtubs full of water for each of us, every single day.

Apparently the UK is the world’s sixth largest importer of water. This, it is claimed, is affecting drier areas of the world where water resources are either already stressed or very likely to become so in the near future. As such, we are now being asked to factor in our water footprint to our daily shop. Businesses are likewise being urged to evaluate their water footprints and take steps to reduce water consumption.

Needless to say, a much simpler solution would be to treat water supplies as an economic good, by making water demand less independent of users' willingness to pay for it. Of course, this may entail the privatization of water supplies in developing countries, something which has inevitably faced hostile opposition – despite its proven, and often dramatic benefits.

Whatever the solution, it is clear that the growing trend towards protectionism in the name of environmentalism is set to continue. If shoppers are now asked to consider ‘water footprints’ alongside the ubiquitous air miles, green bean growers in Kenya will only be the poorer for it.