Thursday, February 20, 2014

Keeping count of the water footprints

Free water allocation resolves temporal scarcity but at the cost of inducing lasting crises. Such populist measures stretch existing supply alongside stressing perennial water sources. Since water bills are measured in currency and not in volume of water consumed, each new allocation only adds to amplifying the demand-supply gap. Though access to water is a human right that every state is obliged to protect, the challenge lies in concurrent reduction in ‘the water footprint of a growing consumer society’ to strike a balance.

The water footprint of a commodity is the total volume of freshwater used – that is consumed or polluted – to produce the commodity, measured over the entire production chain. Simply put, it means that 8,000 liters of water produces a pair of jeans and a can of aerated drink consumes between 168 to 309 liters of water in its production process. Created by Arjen Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente, Netherlands, the concept has meticulously worked out the water footprint of most commodities under varying conditions.

It is quite unlikely, however, if anyone will shun his or her consumptive needs to free freshwater, locked up in products, for fellow citizens living in un-served urban shanties. And there are valid reasons for such a behavior. Since consumers are not aware of any connection between water scarcity in a society and the water footprints of its citizen, they are unlikely to hold themselves responsible for the plight of those who lack access to water within their locality or beyond. No surprise, therefore, that freshwater allocation remains an exercise in politics.

Since consumers do not care about the origin or the fate of products, market gets a message that water is not a relevant factor in producing for the masses and therefore ends up flouting weak regulations. On the other hand, people do broadly believe in water conservation but their actual behavior is often in contrast. This creates a negative spiral, because one of the reasons that consumer behavior does not correspond to the initial positive attitude of most people is the feeling that most products do not save water anyway.

With water being a free input, economics do not factor in scarcity of freshwater resources in computing cost of the end-product. No wonder, cheap stuff from China has a high demand without any regard to the fact that the rivers in China are heavily polluted.

An ordinary consumer can hardly relate to water crises in China vis-a-vis import of cheap products. Since one-fifth of all freshwater appropriated in the world is consumed in the production of export commodities, the idea of water crises being a ‘local’ matter is a gross misconception.

On their own, companies are unlikely to get into the act of reducing the water footprints of their products. In fact, there is hardly any company in the world incorporating water stewardship into its business model. Most companies still restrict their operational water footprint but leave aside the supply-chain water footprint. 
Supply-chain water footprint is critical and is many times greater than the operational water footprint. For instance, aerated drink has more than 95 per cent of its water footprint in its supply-chain of raw water, processing systems and transport. 

Companies have the apprehension that consumers may not pay higher price for products which have reduced supply-chain water footprint. In reality, however, if consumers can afford to buy organic products at a premium there is no reason to assume otherwise. “Governments can and should play a key role by providing incentives to consumers to buy such products and to companies to provide them,” opines Prof Hoekstra. This can be done through lowering of value-added tax for such products alongside a meaningful certification scheme. 

Given the fact that the growth in sales of fair-trade and organic products has been on the rise, good water stewardship is not yet part of the existing labels on products on the supermarket shelves. It would make sense if consumers start demanding greater transparency about the underlying water footprint of products, so that one is better informed about the hidden water resources use and associated impacts. Several consumers in the west already shun meat after realizing that a kilogram of beef consumes no less than 15,000 liters of water. 

While consumers can play their part in reducing consumption of products with big footprint, the onus is on companies that wave ‘green’ flag of sustainability to reduce the water footprint of its products. In a rush to facilitate economic growth, the governments have lost sight of promoting efficient use of freshwater resources. In doing so, they are doing more harm than good. No wonder, a majority of rivers in the country are anything but sewers and most groundwater aquifers are dead for all practical purposes.  

The idea of corporate social responsibility would need to be reinvented. No longer should it be enough for companies to invest just two per cent of its profit on social causes, reduction in the water footprint ought to be a mandatory precondition for companies to earn a ‘responsible water footprint’ tag....Link  

The Water Footprint of Modern Consumer Society
by Arjen Hoekstra
Routledge/Earthscan, UK
Extent: 204 pages; Price: US$ 40

(First published in daily Deccan Herald, Feb 5, 2014)

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