Virtual view of a real problem


Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma underscores the need to build awareness about water footprint and virtual water, in order to encourage people to use water judiciously. He feels reduction in water footprint ought to be a mandatory precondition for companies to remain in business.

It is no breaking news that freshwater scarcity is getting scarier by the day. Equally shocking is the fact that water continues to be a tool in the hands of both the political class and the market forces, which either fling it as a free product or put an economic tag on it. On both the accounts, it is left to the ecologists to sustain quantity and quality of freshwater flows and to the engineers for designing structures to bridge the growing supply-demand gap.

Freebies only amplify demand-supply gap

Yet, free water allocation remains a political response to address the issue of temporal scarcity. Such populist measures pose undue challenge to both the ecologists and the engineers. Working at cross-purposes to each other, such a situation stretches existing supplies alongside endangering the perennial water sources. Since water bills are measured in currency and not in volume of water consumed, each new allocation (that too, free) adds to amplifying the demand-supply gap.

Without doubt, water is a human right and every state is obliged to protect it. Whether it be priced or given free, it is a state’s responsibility to bring equitable distribution of water among its citizens, irrespective of their social and economic statuses. The question that begs attention is whether or not human rights can be protected without first protecting the very source of water!

Can the phenomenon of free-rider behaviour, the consumption and pollution of water by some at the expense of others be allowed to persist? Can the rich and resourceful be permitted to increase their water footprints at the cost of those who imprint their feet on land in search of water? Can equitable distribution be ensured without bringing a semblance of order in the water footprint of a growing consumer society?

Understanding water footprint and virtual water

The water footprint of a consumer reflects the net amount of water used in producing the commodities that s/he consumes. On the other hand, the water footprint of a commodity is the total volume of freshwater used to produce the commodity , measured over the entire production chain. Simply put, it means that 8,000 litres of water produces a pair of jeans and a can of aerated drink consumes between 168 to 309 litres of water in its production process.

Clearly, the water footprint of someone wearing jeans and holding an aerated drink is several times more than the one who possess neither of the two. Neither can there be any legal binding on personal consumption nor can a moral imperative be of any consequence. It is equally unlikely if anyone will voluntarily shun his or her consumptive needs to free freshwater, locked up in the products, for fellow citizens living in unserved urban shanties.

Aren’t there valid reasons for such a behaviour? First, the consumers are not aware of the concept of virtual water (refers to the hidden flow of water if food or other commodities are traded from one place to another) and two they don’t see any fallout from what they consume on water scarcity in a society. Since the concept of water footprint is alien to them, consumers are unlikely to hold themselves responsible for the plight of those who lack access to water within their locality or beyond. It offers a win-win solution for the politicians to resort to free water allocation to resolve the virtual conflict. Since ‘real’ water is seen as that which flows through the tap and not that which lays trapped as ‘virtual’ water in a product, the idea of water footprint rarely gets the attention it deserves in a situation where in freshwater is getting scarcer by the day, or by the hour. Consequently, water crises remain an exercise in politics.

Since neither politicians nor planners and consumers care about the water footprints of products, market gets a message that water is not a relevant factor in producing for the masses and therefore ends up flouting weak regulations. This lends credence to consumer behaviour which believes that most products do not save water anyway. The cumulative effect is the creation of a negative spiral.

Water being a free input, economics do not factor scarcity of freshwater resources in computing cost of the end-product. No wonder, market procures cheap asparagus grown in the desert of Peru and sources cheap stuff from China without any regard to the fact that the rivers in China are heavily polluted. An ordinary consumer can hardly relate to water crises in Peru or China vis-a-vis import of cheap products.

Corporate Social Responsibility in reducing water footprint

Since one-fifth of all freshwater appropriated in the world is consumed in the production of export commodities, the idea of water crises being a ‘local’ matter is a gross misconception. On their own, companies are unlikely to get into the act of reducing the water footprints of their products whether or not they produce it. In fact, there is hardly any company in the world incorporating water stewardship into its business model.

Companies have the apprehension that consumers may not pay higher price for products which have reduced water footprint. In reality, however, if consumers can afford to buy organic products at a premium there is no reason to assume otherwise. Governments can and should play a key role by providing incentives to consumers to buy such products and to companies to provide them. An appropriate certificate and a lowered value-added tax for such products can do the trick.

While consumers can play their part in reducing consumption of products with big footprint, the onus is on companies that wave ‘green’ flag of sustainability to reduce the water footprint of its products. In a rush to facilitate economic growth, the governments have lost sight of promoting efficient use of freshwater resources. In doing so, they are doing more harm than good. No wonder, a majority of rivers in the country are anything but sewers and most groundwater aquifers are dead for all practical purposes.

Paradoxically, the planners would still like us to believe that the interlinking of rivers can resolve the supply-demand gap knowing well that neither does adequate quantities of freshwater flow into our rivers nor is the water of desired quality. For them, real solution to the problem lies in keeping the virtual view out of public gaze. Else, consumers would start demanding greater transparency about the manner in which the issue of water scarcity is being addressed.

Several consumers in the West have already shun meat after realising that a kilogram of beef consumes no less than 15,000 litres of water. Consumer behaviour apart, it is time to reinvent the idea of corporate social responsibility. No longer should it suffice for companies to invest just two percent of its profit on social causes, reduction in the water footprint ought to be a mandatory precondition for companies to remain in business!


Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma

The writer is a Delhi-based water expert and development analyst. He has worked with the United Nations for the World Bank’s water and sanitation programme. Policy analysis of water management and the role of traditional knowledge in human development are his special interests. He is Director of the Ecological Foundation.