The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility

U.S., China and India Make Up 38% of World’s ‘Water Footprint’

By Pratibha Joshi, Journalist's Resource

As the world’s population continues to grow, measuring countries’ water consumption patterns is crucial for understanding looming resource challenges and making effective international policy decisions.

Water_MineralWater_WikimediaA 2012 study from the University of Twente (The Netherlands) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences“The Water Footprint of Humanity,” quantifies water consumption and pollution for all countries, including water resources used as part of international trade, to establish a full picture of global water use. The study employs a broad “water footprint” (WF) measurement, which encompasses water withdrawals within a country’s territory, use of rainwater, water used for “waste assimilation,” as well as water used in the making of imported goods.

The study’s findings include:

-- From 1996 to 2005, annual global average WF was 9,087 gm3 per year (a gigameter is 1 billion meters.) The countries with the highest WF within their territories were China (1,207 gm3/y), India (1,182 gm3/y) and the United States (1,053 gm3/y); together, they made up 38% of the world’s total WF.

-- Of global WF due to industrial production, China represented 22% and the United States 18% — the “largest WFs in their territory related to industrial production.”

-- “The WF of the global average consumer was 1,385 m3∕y.The average consumer in the United States has a WF of 2,842 m3/y, whereas the average citizens in China and India have WFs of 1,071 and 1,089 m3/y, respectively.” (A cubic meter is approximately 264 gallons, meaning that the average daily consumption globally for an individual is 1,002 gallons. For U.S. residents, the figure is 2,057 gallons a day.)

-- Of the 9,087 gm3/y global average for water used in human activities, 74% typically involve rainwater, 11% ground or surface water and 15% volumes of water polluted.

-- Agricultural uses constituted the vast majority (92%) of global WF; industrial uses make up 4.4% and domestic water supply 3.6%. Moreover, “at the level of product categories, cereals consumption contribute the largest share to the global WF (27%), followed by meat (22%) and milk products (7%).”

-- Some 76% of “virtual” international water flows — calculated by multiplying the volume of trade in a commodity by the WF per ton of that commodity in the exporting country — are accounted for by international trade in crops and derived crop products. Industrial products have a 12% share of global virtual water flows. Export goods were found to have a stronger correlation with “water consumption from and pollution of surface and groundwater than non-export goods.”

-- Roughly half of the global virtual flows are accounted for by countries that also report water scarcity, including the United States, Pakistan, India, Australia, Uzbekistan, China and Turkey. This raises the question whether decisions to export water-intensive products resulted in the most efficient use of water sources for domestic populations.

The study concludes that approximately 20% of global water footprint from 1996 to 2005 was intended for export. “The relatively large volume of international virtual water flows and the associated external water dependencies strengthen the argument to put the issue of water scarcity in a global context,” the report states. “For governments in water-scarce countries such as in North Africa and the Middle East, it is crucial to recognize the dependency on external water resources and to develop foreign and trade policies such that they ensure a sustainable and secure import of water-intensive commodities that cannot be grown domestically.”

Photo by Walter J. Pilsak via Wikimedia.

Pratibha Joshi is a Shorenstein Graduate Researcherat Journalist's Resource, a project of the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative. This article is republished under terms of a Creative Commons license.

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  1. Obama - Cameron: ".....As two of the world’s wealthiest nations, we embrace our responsibility as leaders in the development that enables people to live in dignity, health and prosperity....."

    Loïc Fauchon, President of the World Water Council, launched the 6th World Water Forum this week, with an opinion on what needs to be provided for 'people to live in dignity, health and prosperity', when he said ".....first and foremost, energy and water so they can finally pull themselves out of poverty....."

    The developing world is now, and will be for a couple of decades to come, spending £billions or maybe £trillions on coal fired power stations. And who can blame them, with 40,000 people per day dying from preventable diseases, for the sake of affordable energy and potable water?

    Coal fired power stations use and contaminate vast volumes of fresh water to cool the waste heat from the steam turbines used to generate electricity. This heat, containing nearly two thirds of the heat from the coal, is truly wasted.

    In the 50s and 60s, whilst the UK trod a path to a nuclear technology dead end, the US Administration withdrew funding to technological development of Molten Salt Breeder Reactors (MSBRs) in what is surely the 'Saddest Accident of History' ( ) .

    MSBRs, now known as Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs), use gas turbines to drive the electrical generators and the 'waste' heat from these (just over half of what the reactor produces) is at a high enough temperature to desalinate water. So, nothing is 'wasted'; huge volumes of potable water can be produces from brackish ground water or sea water - and the cost is NEXT TO NOTHING.

    The Heads of State of the developing world must urgently liaise to get the first-of-a-kind LFTR up and running, for a piddling amount of money. This will get investment stimulated to the point that venture capitalists and fund managers are knocking the door down to get into the most essential technology of the 21st Century.

    In the days of slide rules and compasses, when all machining and planning was done manually, the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was funded in 1960, switched on in 1965 and ran for many thousands of full power hours until 1969. The MSRE was two thirds of what a LFTR is, so in these days of CAD/CAM, computerised 3D modelling and planning, with the right will, a LFTR could be ready for action in 5 years. Within not much more than a decade, we could have factory built, transportable modular units coming off production lines. Their safety is inherent and their 'greenness' unrivaled.

  2. 41% of the world's population reside in these three countries...

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