Water footprint – How people use fresh water

Boy drinking from water fountain / ©: Istockphoto.com / WWF-Canada
Boy drinking from water fountain
© Istockphoto.com / WWF-Canada
Global pressure on our freshwater resources is increasing, mainly through changes to population and income levels, which have increased the demand for water-intensive products such as meat, sugar and cotton.

Similarly, changes in precipitation patterns as a result of climate change are adding to the pressures on our global water resources. It is increasingly vital that we understand the link between the food and fibre products we consume and their impact on the world’s scarce water supplies.

What is a water footprint?


A water footprint is a measure of the freshwater used in the production of the goods and services that a particular individual, business or nation uses.

A water footprint is comprised of two components: direct water use and indirect use. The indirect water use is measured as “virtual” water (the volume of water required to produce a certain product). It includes the use of:
  • blue water (rivers, lakes, aquifers)
  • green water (rainfall in crop growth)
  • grey water (water polluted after agricultural, industrial and household use).

The water footprint tells us how much water is used, but the impact of changes to a water footprint depends entirely on where water is taken from and when. A water footprint increasing in an area where water is plentiful is unlikely to have an adverse effect on society or the environment. However, if that growth occurs in an area already experiencing water scarcity, then serious problems could result.

Such water problems might include:
  • the drying of rivers
  • the destruction of habitats and livelihoods
  • the extinction of species
  • changes to agricultural prices, supplies and local economies.

Click here to find out what WWF is doing to reduce our water footprint.

Some 97.5 % of our planet’s water is salt water. Almost all of the remaining fresh water is locked up in glaciers and ice caps, or in aquifers deep under the surface.

Facts and figures

• It requires 10–20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of beef.

• Agriculture accounts for 92 per cent of the global water footprint. Humanity’s growing water needs and climate change are exacerbating challenges of water scarcity.

• More than 200 river basins, home to some 2.67 billion people, already experience severe water scarcity for at least one month ever year.

• Extreme weather events due to climate change could severely impact global food trade – especially for importing countries that rely on water-intensive commodities for basic needs.

• Australia has the 12th largest water footprint in the world. India has the first, followed by the United States and China.


Living Planet Report 2014:

Figure 27: Water footprint of national production of top 20 countries with indication of overall risk of blue water scarcity.