Articles | Volume 18, issue 6
Review article
24 Jun 2014
Review article |  | 24 Jun 2014

Quantifying the human impact on water resources: a critical review of the water footprint concept

J. Chenoweth, M. Hadjikakou, and C. Zoumides

Abstract. The water footprint is a consumption-based indicator of water use, referring to the total volume of freshwater used directly and indirectly by a nation or a company, or in the provision of a product or service. Despite widespread enthusiasm for the development and use of water footprints, some concerns have been raised about the concept and its usefulness. A variety of methodologies have been developed for water footprinting which differ with respect to how they deal with different forms of water use. The result is water footprint estimates which vary dramatically, often creating confusion. Despite these methodological qualms, the concept has had notable success in raising awareness about water use in agricultural and industrial supply chains, by providing a previously unavailable and (seemingly) simple numerical indicator of water use. Nevertheless, and even though a range of uses have already been suggested for water footprinting, its policy value remains unclear. Unlike the carbon footprint which provides a universal measure of human impact on the atmosphere's limited absorptive capacity, the water footprint in its conventional form solely quantifies a single production input without any accounting of the impacts of use, which vary spatially and temporally. Following an extensive review of the literature related to water footprints, this paper critically examines the present uses of the concept, focusing on its current strengths, shortcomings and promising research avenues to advance it.