Proposed Water Footprint LCA considers water scarcity

Arjen Y. Hoekstra. A critique on the water-scarcity weighted water footprint in LCA Ecological Indicators 66 (2016) 564–573

The water footprint (WF) has been developed within the water resources research community as a volumetric measure of freshwater appropriation. The concept is used to assess water use along supply chains, sustainability of water use within river basins, efficiency of water use, equitability of water allocation and dependency on water in the supply chain. With the purpose of integrating the WF in life cycle assessment of products, LCA scholars have proposed to weight the original volumetric WF by the water scarcity in the catchment where the WF is located, thus obtaining a water-scarcity weighted WF that reflects the potential local environmental impact of water consumption. This paper provides an elaborate critique on this proposal. The main points are:

(1) counting litres of water use differently based on the level of local water scarcity obscures the actual debate about water scarcity, which is about allocating water resources to competing uses and depletion at a global scale;

(2) the neglect of green water consumption ignores the fact that green water is scarce as well;

(3) since water scarcity in a catchment increases with growing overall water consumption in the catchment, multiplication of the consumptive water use of a specific process or activity with water scarcity implies that the resultant weighted WF of a process or activity will be affected by the WFs of other processes or activities, which cannot be the purpose of an environmental performance indicator;

(4) the LCA treatment of the WF is inconsistent with how other environmental footprints are defined; and

(5) the Water Stress Index, the most cited water scarcity metric in the LCA community, lacks meaningful physical interpretation.

It is proposed to incorporate the topic of freshwater scarcity in LCA as a “natural resource depletion” category, considering depletion from a global perspective. Since global freshwater demand is growing while global freshwater availability is limited, it is key to measure the comparative claim of different products on the globe’s limited accessible and usable freshwater flows.

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