Reducing the impact of humanity's water footprint

WWF is working with governments, businesses and industry to improve the way water is managed – and so ensure adequate water for local people and ecosystems, and the fair sharing of remaining water between different water users.
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Waterfall on the Bolavan Plateau, Champasak Province, southern Lao PDR.
© WWF
Why freshwater conservation matters

Managing and conserving freshwater is not only important for biodiversity - it impacts people and businesses too

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Work centres on:

  • promoting the water footprint concept to measure both water use and the impacts of this use
  • reducing harmful water footprint impacts
  • defining public and private sector actions that support better water management in specific river basins.
This work is underpinned by the knowledge and expertise of WWF's Global Freshwater Programme, and carried out in conjunction with the:

Humanity's water footprint has exceeded sustainable levels in several areas around the world.

Rising human populations and increased income levels are leading to increased demand for water-intensive products such as meat, sugar and cotton. This is driving over-abstraction of water and pollution of freshwater ecosystems – resulting in rivers running dry, lake and groundwater levels dropping, and freshwater species becoming endangered.

The increased human pressure on water resources is compounded by changed precipation patterns due to global climate change.

Water Footprint

"Water footprint" is a measure of water use, and can be calculated for individuals, businesses, cities, and countries.
It includes direct water use (such as for drinking and cleaning) as well as indirect use (the water required to produce goods and services). This indirect water use is described as ‘virtual’ water.

For example, UK households directly use around 150 litres of water per person per day. But when the virtual water used to produce the food, beverages, clothing and other products consumed by these individuals is included, the water footprint rises to 4,645 litres per person per day.

A large part of the water footprint of developed nations is accounted for by water use in other nations to produce commodities.

Water footprint facts & figures

    • 10-20,000 litres of water are used to produce 1kg of beef
    • 8,000 litres of water are used to produce a pair of leather shoes
    • 2,900 litres of water are used to produce a cotton shirt
    • 140 litres of water are used to produce 1 cup of black coffee without sugar
    • 200 litres of water are used to produce the sugar in 1 can of cola 
    • Food demand is estimated to double by 2050
    • 70% of existing global freshwater is withdrawn for irrigation in agriculture

Average annual water footprints

    • China: 950 cubic metres per person, of which 8% is related to the consumption of imported products
    • UK: 1,695 cubic metres per person, about 62% of which is related to the consumption of imported products
    • US: 2,900 cubic metres per person

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