Interview: Arjen Hoekstra, Creator of the Water Footprint Concept

Interview: Arjen Hoekstra, Creator of the Water Footprint Concept

Dr. Arjen Hoekstra created the water footprint and opened people’s eyes about sustainable consumption and how humanity uses water. Discover what guided him onto this visionary path, the role that consumer decisions have on consumption and water use, the complexities of industrial versus pasture-raised meat, and more.
Dr. Arjen Hoekstra sadly passed away unexpectedly in 2019. His loss has already been deeply felt in the field of water footprints.

Meet Dr. Arjen Hoekstra, creator of the water footprint and professor of water management at the University of Twente. As interest in the water footprint concept has grown in recent years, more people are giving thought to sustainable consumption and the important and pervasive role water plays in their daily lives.

Hoekstra created the water footprint concept in the early 2000s, around the same time as the carbon footprint was coming into people’s awareness. As Hoekstra and his colleagues further developed water footprints and published on the subject in the mid-2000s, the ideas caught the interest of both the academic and business communities. This interest led Hoekstra to gather scientists, corporations and nonprofits/NGOs together to form the Water Footprint Network, a hub of water footprint knowledge and research.

A Sustainable Vision For Water (and Consumption)

Because the concepts of water footprints and sustainable consumption have proven to be so durable, a whole new scientific discipline has sprung up, one flexible enough to measure water consumption for a variety of entities ranging from individuals to countries, products to processes. As the flow of conversation rolls on to the topic of water and sustainability, Hoekstra’s dedication and insight into addressing and resolving daunting water problems becomes clear.

Read on to find out what guided Hoekstra onto this visionary path, the impact of consumer decisions on water use, what sustainable consumption looks like and the complexities surrounding industrial versus pasture-raised meat and more.

WFC: Even though you created the water footprint concept many years ago, why do you think it’s now becoming more widely known and accepted?

Arjen Hoekstra: Declining groundwater tables, reduced river flows and water pollution as a result of unsustainable water use practices are becoming more widespread. In Global Risks 2015, the World Economic Forum lists water crises as the most important risk in terms of potential global impact. Major drivers of this perception are large companies that depend on international supply chains and increasingly experience water risks in parts of their chain. Public awareness is growing as well, and this helps companies to take the problem seriously, because it’s not only their supplies that can be at risk, but also their reputation if they don’t take action.

What misconceptions about water footprints do you regularly encounter?

The water footprint concept is easy to grasp: It shows water consumption and pollution over the full supply chain of a product. The water footprint of our consumption pattern depends on the products we buy. Overall, the water footprint of humanity is unsustainable, because it leads to water depletion and pollution in many places, so we should reduce it. But people easily jump to simple conclusions. Water problems, however, are complex, both in terms of underlying mechanisms and in terms of formulating effective response.

A discussion about water footprints can suddenly turn into a discussion about product labeling. I am a big advocate of greater product transparency, but putting the water footprint of a product on a label may not be very effective. It would be better to consider a number of criteria, including for instance the sustainability, efficiency and equitability of water use in each step of the supply chain of a product. Besides, water could best be integrated into existing sustainability labels rather than create yet another one. Also, product labeling is just one of a long list of things that needs to be done and deserves attention.

I plead for setting water footprint caps in a given river basin, specified in time. I also call for developing water footprint benchmarks for products based on best available technology and practice, in order to stimulate companies to set specified water footprint reduction targets for their products.

The water footprint is a great starting point for this much needed debate about the wiser use of our scarce freshwater resources, but the debate needs to mature and include all the complexities. We need to understand the responsibilities of producers and consumers, but also of governments and investors.

What was your inspiration for the water footprint concept? Did you have an “aha!” moment or was there a longstanding set of issues that motivated you to explore this field?

The idea to call a water footprint a water footprint came during a reflective moment under the shower, which must have been somewhere in the winter 2001-2002. I was looking for a proper name for the water use of consumers in a nation. National water use statistics always showed – and generally still show – only the water use in the country, which gives a wrong picture of water use in relation to consumption. Because the people in a country also consume imported products, we must add the water use behind imported products. And to be fair we should subtract the water use behind exported products. I knew the concept of the ecological footprint, which refers to the land use behind consumption, so I decided to use the term water footprint, to show the analogy.

In your work with the Water Footprint Network, you’ve been in contact with people from around the world coming from many different backgrounds and cultures. What are the similarities and differences that you have noticed surrounding the issue of water?

There tends to be a difference between people from countries that actually experience water scarcity in their own territory and people from countries that relate to water scarcity only through imports. In my own country, the Netherlands, people have little notion of the whole idea of water scarcity, even though 95 percent of our water footprint lies outside the country, with 40 percent in countries that experience severe water scarcity at least part of the year. In these sorts of countries there is some worry about the sustainability of imported products. Most interest in the water footprint, however, comes from regions that actually experience water scarcity themselves, like Spain and California.

Considering that diet, especially meat, is often the biggest component of an individual’s water footprint, what should people do, and is pasture-raised better than conventionally produced (CAFO) meat?

It’s not so simple to say that extensively pasture-raised is better than intensively industrially produced. We like to think so, but it’s a bit complex. The feed conversion efficiency – the efficiency of the animal to convert feed into meat – is generally higher in industrial farming, is precisely the reason why industrial farming was invented, so this implies a lower footprint per unit of meat.

On the other hand, the larger efficiency is reached through rich concentrate feed that has a larger footprint per kilogram [or pound] of feed than grazing and roughages. Sometimes the net effect is that intensive [industrial meat production] has a larger footprint than extensive [pasture-raised], other times the reverse, depending on a number of other factors, like breed and precise feed composition and farming practice. Animal welfare, of course, demands extensive farming systems. From an environmental perspective it’s best to reduce or stop meat consumption altogether. The reason is that it’s so much more efficient to obtain calories and protein directly from crops than indirectly from meat.

Your work extends beyond sustainable production into sustainable consumption. How can people in the United States consume goods and services more sustainably so we don’t deplete resources and harm human and ecosystem health?

I don’t like to prescribe to people what to consume or not. It’s great that individuals can make their own choices. I think though, that everyone is responsible for the sustainability of his or her choices, which requires that people know the background of what they consume. The average American consumer has a water footprint [that is] two times the global average. In the coming century, the water footprint per consumer in the US should decrease by about 70 percent compared to the reference level of 2000 in order to stabilize on the level that provides a fair share of the global maximum sustainable water footprint. There are various ways of reducing the water footprint: consuming less meat, dairy and sugar; buying less cotton; using recycled paper; producing less waste; and moving towards solar and wind energy.

What’s your water footprint?

My water footprint used to be like that of the average Dutch consumer, but nearly two years ago I became vegetarian, because I found it harder and harder to say one thing and do the other.

Originally published on GRACE’s former blog Ecocentric by Kai Olson-Sawyer on .

Image credit: Arjen Hoekstra