Sustainable Water | Water Footprint of UK

The water demand of a country is usually expressed as the total water withdrawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers in that country for different sectors of its economy. However, this does not equate to the total water demand of a country, since it does not take into account the impact on those global water resources which are required to produce imported products. Given that many goods consumed within a country are produced elsewhere, the total or actual water demand of a country is often much higher than traditional assessments suggest.

Schematic methodology to establish UK water footprint
Source: Chapagain  and Orr (2008). UK Water Footprint: The impact of UK’s food and fibre consumption on global water resources. Goldaming. UK, WWF-UK. 1.

The UK consumes many diverse products. These include large quantities of livestock products, cereals, tea, cotton, and sugar originating from all over the world. To calculate the UK’s WF, the water requirements of all agricultural products consumed are analysed together with an estimation of industrial products.

What goes into the UK’s water footprint?

The WF of a person, business or nation is the sum of water use (direct or indirect) to produce goods and services consumed. Direct water use (i.e. water from the tap) is easy to estimate, whereas indirect water use (i.e. water used to produce goods and services), is more difficult to quantify. The quantity of indirect water in a product is expressed in terms of the virtual water content of a product (e.g. cubic meters of water per tonne of product).

Total water footprint of the UK

  • 102 Gm3 (billion cubic metres) per year –> 49 times the annual flow of the River Thames
  • 4,645 litres per person per day –> 50 normal bath tubs or 75 cycles of a standard washing machine

The total WF is made up of agricultural products; industrial products; and household water use. The per person figure breaks down as: agricultural products, 3,400 litres per person per day, with cotton alone representing 211 litres per person per day; industrial products, 1,095 litres per person per day; and household water, 150 litres per person per day.

Dependence on global water sources

The UK is just 38% self-sufficient in water, and is therefore 62% dependent on water from elsewhere.

Source: Chapagain and Orr (2008). UK Water Footprint: The impact of UK’s food and fibre consumption on global water resources. Goldaming. UK, WWF-UK. 1.

Most of the products that make up the UK’s WF originate from Brazil, France, Ireland, Ghana and India. Ghana provides cocoa, which is mainly rainfed. Brazil provides soybeans, coffee, and livestock products, while France provides mainly seasonal produce. Ireland provides mainly meat products, and India, cotton, rice and tea.

What can we do?  

Reducing the impacts of water use arising from the consumption of food and cotton is not only a citizen/consumer’s responsibility, however we can play a positive role in lobbying Government and demanding better performance from business in terms of its impact on water sources. There are in fact many things we can do to address our own direct water use, starting with reducing the amount of water we use and the amount of food we waste at home.

  • Waste less food and recycle products, therefore wasting less water;
  • Become more aware of the role of water in our daily lives calculating our own WF [using
    online calculators such as WaterFootprint.Org]
  • Demand household water metering and affordable pricing from government;
  • Pressure retailers and food manufacturers to deliver water sustainability through their stores and crucially in their supply chains;
  • Support campaigns related to water management issues such as End Water Poverty and Blueprint for Water

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