A water footprint is a measurement of how much water someone uses in a set period of time. Water footprints encompass not only the water directly used by the consumer, but the water indirectly used to produce consumer goods. In addition to looking at individual water footprints, it is also possible to consider the footprints of nations, companies, and demographic groups. This concept was developed in 2002 as part of an overall United Nations effort to raise awareness about water consumption and to address the security of the global water supply.
Water is a critical resource. At home, people use water to drink, cook, bathe, and wash, but water is also involved in the production of many consumer goods, ranging from produce to paper. In order to gauge someone's water footprint accurately, the assessment must consider the person's eating habits, lifestyle, and so forth, and water footprints also often rely on lifestyles lived by other people in the community. Americans, for example, have very large water footprints due to their reliance on animal products and corn for food, while people in remote regions of Africa often have very small water footprints because of their diet and lifestyle.
Water footprints include the amount of freshwater used directly and indirectly, along with the amount of water which evaporates to meet the needs of a consumer, and the amount of water which is polluted. At every step of the way, improvements can be made to reduce the size of a water footprint. For example, tighter controls on agricultural pollution can reduce the water footprint from meat consumption, while using water reclamation in factories can reduce the amount of wasted freshwater in the production of consumer goods.
Some researchers in the 1990s identified water as one of the emerging issues of the 21st century. An estimated one in six people in the world's population lacked access to a safe supply of fresh water as of 2008, and the supply of water is constantly dwindling. Especially in regions with heavy population pressure, like India and China, water is a very serious issue, and in the developed world, conflicts arise between nations fighting for water rights, better controls on pollution, and other water-related issues.
United Nations officials can use the water footprint as a clear and easy to understand illustration to show people how they and their nations can improve their water usage. By reducing the amount of water used and wasted, people can contribute to the security of the global water supply. Raising awareness about water issues is also designed to help provide the technology and scientific know-how needed to increase access to safe drinking water.