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The how and why of measuring your water footprint

October 07, 2020

By Adrian Johnson

Reducing your organization’s water footprint can help your business—if you know how to measure it

In 2007, Oxford Dictionaries selected “carbon footprint” as its word of the year. That term is now familiar to many, which gives the concept power. People and organizations around the world strive to understand their carbon footprints and actively consider how to reduce environmental impacts.

More recently, another term has entered our vocabulary: water footprint. In 2014, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) introduced ISO14046:2014, which specifies principles, requirements, and guidelines related to water footprint assessments.

A water footprint measures how an organization’s activities impact water quantity and quality within a geographical area. Conducting these measurements can help organizations:

  • Improve decision-making
  • Operate more sustainably
  • Enhance their reputations
  • Save money

The problem? The ISO guideline doesn’t spell out exactly how to measure your water footprint.

Creating a Model for Others to Follow

UK water company Anglian Water Services (AWS) has long been a leader in sustainability. Like Stantec, AWS aligns its activities and outcomes with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

When AWS decided to undertake a pilot study to establish and test a way of measuring their water footprint, Stantec technical director Adrian Johnson (Edinburgh, United Kingdom) and his colleagues were eager to help. Together with AWS head of carbon neutrality David Riley, they formed a project team that included Stantec staff from the United Kingdom and United States, and Professor Tim Hess from Cranfield University (United Kingdom). The resulting project, which was one of the first of its kind, was funded by AWS and the US-based Water Research Foundation. The work measured the water footprints of AWS’s water supply and water recycling operations in two separate resource zones and considered the alternative capital investments planned to improve operational performance. The results used not only to help AWS, but also to provide insight into the emerging practice of water footprinting.

Following the release of the ISO standard, organizations started to create hypothetical models showing how they might approach water footprinting. But AWS and Stantec wanted to understand the complexities that would come into play when working with real data.

The pilot study was conducted in a water-stressed area and examined the benefits and challenges of using water footprint assessments to

  • Understand the impacts of capital improvement projects on the water environment
  • Identify project alternatives that could mitigate or avoid negative effects

Conducting a Water Footprint

The team laid out a plan to craft a water footprint that would be the first of its kind. First, they compiled information on inputs from and outputs to local water bodies. Next, they set out to understand the impacts of those flows on factors such as water shortages and nutrient concentrations. They also assessed the water, energy, and chemicals used—whether locally, nationally, or internationally—for water supply and water recycling operations, as well as the water used to extract materials, manufacture, and transport products.

Measuring and understanding both the quantity and quality of water used, moved, and discharged back to water bodies helped AWS and the Stantec team create impact profiles, which are the primary outputs of a water footprint study. In this case, these profiles related to impacts of current operations and proposed investments for improvement of water scarcity and nutrient levels. These impact profiles allow scenarios to be weighted and then compared to better understand potential impacts where water is withdrawn or returned. 

In one of the pilot catchments AWS studied, the water footprint analysis showed how leakage reduction actions to reduce a supply deficit would lead to a measurable reduction in water scarcity but would not improve issues related to nutrient levels. In the other catchment, analysis was used to compare the relative impacts on the water scarcity of investments in water reuse and desalination. The team showed how water footprint analysis could be used alongside analysis of carbon emissions and cost to provide a richer picture of the costs and benefits of alternative investment options.

The study helped AWS decision-makers understand how the approach could help plan future capital investments and created a model for others to use.

Supporting Great Ideas

Stantec leadership felt the work we did with AWS and the Water Research Foundation was so important that we put funding from our Innovation Office toward it as well. Here’s what they learned.

1. Assessing your water footprint will enable smart decision-making.

For example, water footprinting provides quantitative evidence to indicate which water bodies are preferable for extracting or discharging water. This context is one of the most important aspects of a water footprint, particularly given that areas worldwide are sounding the alarm bells about critical water shortages and water quality issues. By selecting two areas that differed in terms of population and land use—the first zone was a small town, the second predominantly rural—the team was able to demonstrate the importance of characterizing a catchment in terms of its vulnerability to different types of impact.

Numbers—no matter how many millions of litres of water are being talked about—don’t take on meaning until discussions are had about where that water has been taken from and where it is being put back. We wanted to better understand the geographical context to determine how choices would affect local water quality, flora and fauna, and stakeholders. Going further to integrate water footprint analysis with assessment of cost and carbon emissions enables smart decision-making.

2. Smart decision-making will improve resilience and save money in the long-term.

The ability to make better decisions based on evidence such as a water impact profile can help organizations operate their assets and plan their annual investment more effectively. IT can also help organizations with water use and water cycle planning in the face of the increasing climate emergency.

For decades, it has been assumed that water is where we need it – but fresh water is an increasingly scarce commodity. As shifts in weather patterns and increased frequency of extreme weather events further threaten the reliability of our water resources, nations, organisations, and communities need to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Water footprints help us look to future, by identifying opportunities for real solutions, and real savings.

3. Being an early adopter will keep you ahead of future regulations and requirements.

Being thoughtful about water resources doesn’t just help the environment. It can help an organization’s bottom line and boost its image, too.

“Though [water footprint] reporting is voluntary at the moment, there’s an opportunity for responsible organizations to use this type of analysis to get a much better understanding of the impacts they have on the water environment and to take action to show their stewardship of our limited water resources,” Adrian says. “Water stewardship is central to the rapidly developing Environmental and Social Governance (ESG)agenda alongside other issues such as climate change and biodiversity. Customers, investors, and regulators are increasingly calling for organizations to demonstrate how they are adopting more sustainable approaches.”

A water disclosure project led by the international non-profit organization CDP provides one avenue for reporting, and activities in this space are likely to increase.

The voluntary status of reporting may not last for long. The trajectory for water footprinting could continue to follow in the footsteps of carbon footprinting. This means the practice could become a requirement from governments or certifying bodies in the not-so-distant future.

Opportunities Abound for Other Industries

This experience in water footprinting provides a model for other water companies to follow. But it goes beyond that. Both public and private-sector organizations across a range of industries can benefit from learning more about how they use water.

Through water footprinting, there are opportunities to create real results, with increased interest from players in food, beverage, and other industries which have identified ways to improve their sustainability and triple bottom lines through smart decision-making.

About this article

This article is part of an ongoing series that features projects funded by Stantec’s Innovation Office which celebrates and supports employee ideas that benefit our clients, communities, and company. Check back soon for another story in the series.

  • Adrian Johnson

    As a civil engineer and executive technical director at Stantec, Adrian’s experience is primarily in the water sector. He specialises in sustainable development, climate change and carbon management.

    Contact Adrian
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