Learning to Tread Lightly: Water Footprint Education and Water Risk

Learning to Tread Lightly: Water Footprint Education and Water Risk

Learning about water footprints can be an important, if overlooked, first step in managing water risk for the public. Originally published in Water Resources IMPACT Magazine’s January/February 2022 edition.

Water risk is at the forefront of contemporary environmental concerns—but it can also have far-reaching socioeconomic impacts. Just look at the past year: economists are still taking stock of the costs of devastating floods in China, Germany, and the U.S. mid-Atlantic as well as of punishing droughts in Brazil, Madagascar, and the western United States. While the consequences of these water-related disasters are still being assessed, this much is clear: systemic resilience to water-related risk is needed at both local and global levels.

Droughts, floods, pollution, and failing infrastructure do not occur in a vacuum. As populations swell and economic activity intensifies, polluted drinking water, flooding, and water scarcity are increasingly critical threats. To top it off, climate change brings on increasingly extreme weather events and exacerbates these risks.

For public policy to proactively address these water risks, a willing constituency is required. In a general sense, the public support to address these problems already exists. But general support is one thing. It is another thing altogether for public officials, water managers, scientists, CEOs, and other leaders to gain public support for implementing specific infrastructure and policy goals. The public is largely unfamiliar with where their water comes from, how it is used, and where it goes when they are finished with it. In good times, water is an afterthought. But if we cannot direct public attention to water risks during the good times, we cannot prepare for the bad. To build more resilient, pro-water constituencies, policy makers and planners need to foster a water ethic by promoting a “water footprint” education.

Looking at the Big Picture

What is a water ethic? And how does learning about our water footprint help build one? The term “water ethic” was coined by Sandra Postel, the 2021 Stockholm Water Prize winner. It is a set of values and guiding principles that help communities sustainably negotiate the risky world of water. According to Postel:

What is needed is a set of guidelines and principles that stops us from chipping away at natural systems until nothing is left of their life-sustaining functions, which the marketplace fails to value adequately, if at all. In short, we need a water ethic—a guide to right conduct in the face of complex decisions about natural systems that we do not and cannot fully understand.

Because the public tends to take water for granted, building a water ethic must begin with education. Drought, for example, is a common, public-facing water risk. Most education and outreach campaigns that focus on drought attempt to address threats of water scarcity at the level of household use. This residential focus makes sense for a number of reasons, including the obligation of water utilities and providers to sustain their supply for customers and the capacity to curtail outdoor water use during acute drought. 

But the picture is bigger—much bigger. Residential and small-scale commercial use makes up only a fraction of the total water use in the United States. According to U.S. Geological Survey estimates, the top two water-withdrawing sectors in 2015 were thermoelectric power generation and agricultural irrigation. Residential and commercial use came in third. A focus on residential and other, smaller users is unlikely to offer the richest source of water savings. Ruiz et al. (2020) observe as much in a recent study:

Our analyses suggest that domestic water savings advocacy and incentive programs will fail the majority of the time in the United States because domestic water use is not the dominant driver of water stress, and available household savings measures are not sufficient to transition the majority of counties out of water stress during a drought.

Households do impact local water supplies, watersheds, and basins through direct water use. But household virtual water use—that is, the indirect water use that results from their consumption of food, goods, and services—has substantially greater impacts that extend far beyond their immediate vicinity. Learning how one’s behavior impacts water resources within these larger systems is the first step in learning to value water and developing a water ethic.

Here is where water footprint education addresses gaps in public knowledge about water use. It offers a comprehensive view of water use, is easily comprehensible, and can help transform small, individual habits into big, systemic changes.

Tracing Our Footprints

At WaterCalculator.org we have pioneered the use of the water footprint framework to educate people about their direct and virtual water use for over a decade. Water footprints conceptually demonstrate how a person’s daily consumption of food, consumer goods, electronics, and energy contribute to overall water use by agriculture, manufacturing, energy producers, and ecosystems.

The water footprint concept lends itself to an expansive notion of water education because it encompasses water quantity and quality, as well as direct water use and indirect water use through distant supply chains and operations. It provides an engaging way for people to consider water context—how items purchased and brought into their household pertain to large water users in their community, region, country, or beyond. It can be scaled down to address water issues in a local context or scaled up to address issues at regional, national, or international levels. Because of its versatility of scale, water footprint education can deepen public knowledge, generate interest, and build support for the design of effective, long-term water resilience programs.

Water footprint education addresses gaps in public knowledge about water use. It offers a comprehensive view of water use, is easily comprehensible, and can help transform small, individual habits into big, systemic changes.

Realizing these goals requires a new educational approach. The Water Footprint Calculator project has developed tools and content to help the public develop an intuitive grasp of the water footprint concept.

In practice, how could water footprint education help effectuate a demand-side, water risk avoidance strategy? Ultimately, it should influence both users’ direct and indirect water use, steering them toward a “smaller” water footprint. There are plenty of resources for curbing direct water use. The trick to effective water footprint education is to extend these strategies into indirect or virtual water use as well.

One resource for curbing direct water use appears in Benjamin Inskeep and Shahzeen Attari’s “The Water Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take to Curb Water Use.” The article offers a list of behavioral tweaks that most effectively decrease household water use, including shorter showers, fewer toilet flushes, and altered lawn irrigation. Expanding this model to fit water footprint education would involve providing guidelines for virtual water conservation—behaviors that, although not obviously related to responsible water use, stand to make the biggest dent in our water footprints. Such steps might include reducing food waste, avoiding excessive use of electricity and other fuels, and limiting consumption of less sustainable foods like meat and processed foods.

Water footprint education can also be tailored to address the water-use behavior changes embedded in the context of a specific region, climate, watershed, or industrial mix. For instance, in places like California, where water and energy are closely connected, a concerted “Save Energy, Save Water” campaign could be effective.

Beyond local water concerns within a given watershed, water footprints affect water scarcity in the often-distant locations where consumer goods are produced. Much of our virtual water use is tied to specific steps along a product’s supply chain. Supply chains move virtual water—in the production of food, fiber, and nonfood commodities like energy—around the country and planet through “virtual water trade.”

This type of trade in goods has advantages. Uneven access to water resources can limit production of certain goods to regions where water is plentiful. The virtual water trade embedded in product supply chains allows people who live with water scarcity to receive products that they might otherwise be forced to go without. But this trade also has risks. When water-scarce places willingly trade away their own precious water resources through production and export of goods and services, these trade-offs typically come with high environmental and social costs.

Educated consumers can make informed choices about the water risks—even if distant—involved in their purchases and how they are handled in their home. By educating the public about the impact of virtual water use involved in product supply chains, water footprint educators can help consumers make more sustainable choices.

Small Change, Big Difference

Water footprints show that our food and energy systems have the biggest impact on our water system. The greatest gains for increasing resilience and reducing water risks will therefore have to come from those systems.

Individual behaviors can make a difference. In a consumer economy, people “vote” with their dollars. With time, this can snowball into a broader shift in consumption patterns as a whole. Education can also foster more direct forms of collective action like consumer awareness campaigns that focus on individual habits or public pressure campaigns that aim to reshape policies and institutions. With comprehensive water footprint education, consumers are equipped to make decisions that shift the needle toward sustainability.

By Kai Olson-Sawyer and Robin Madel

Image: Bay Mini-Grant Students. Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Estuary Program on Unsplash.