About UNEP
United Nations Environment Programme
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
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Water and Sanitation – Activities

Water Footprint, Neutrality and Efficiency

Since 2009, UNEP has been implementing a project to enhance water efficiency and water quality management through the refinement of water footprinting and water neutrality methodologies, their testing and applications in developing country industries and in water stressed areas. The specific objectives of the project include the following:

  1. To refine methods and management tools for the water footprint and water neutrality concepts;
  2. To build capacity and to raise awareness among the public and private sector in order to apply the water footprint and neutrality concepts on a larger scale and with greater consistency;
  3. To demonstrate the applicability of harmonised concepts in enhancing water efficiency and improving water quality in high water impact and water dependent industries and in water stressed regions.

Referring to the type of water use and where, when, and how the water is used, the water footprint concept measures the total water appropriation of goods and services by integrating water consumption over the complete production and supply chain (direct and indirect water use). The concept has been introduced to have a demand and consumer oriented indicator. The concept has the potential to be applied for any product or activity, as well as for any well-defined group of consumers or products, organization, or a given geographical region. Water neutrality refers to the reduction and offsetting of the negative externalities resulting from the water footprint of a unit of analysis, such as a product, service, individual consumer, business or other organization.

While there have been significant efforts by UNEP in the terrain of water management, there has not been a concerted effort engaging public authorities, businesses and the finance community to promote and test innovative approaches and management tools. This project seeks to fill these gaps and seize the opportunity to collaborate with different actors in the public as well as the private sector government authorities at different levels, industry and financial services, as well as networks and NGOs - to advance water efficiency and water quality with considerations on global supply chains and life cycle. The ongoing work to develop an ISO standard for water footprinting by 2011 also underscores the need to refine the methods and tools that address developing country concerns and sustainability priorities, and to build capacity on the concept and its applications.

This project has been developed as an umbrella initiative that builds on complementary strengths from three branches within the UNEP Division of Technology, Industry and Economics (UNEP DTIE), namely IETC, the Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch, and the UNEP Financial Initiative under the Economics and Trade Branch of DTIE. The project targets the following sectors:

  1. High water impact and water dependent industry sectors to advance water efficiency and water quality management;
  2. Financiers and investors, who may use the water footprint data and tools in due diligence and stock picking exercises; and
  3. Public authorities and water bodies, particularly in water-stressed / scarce regions, to assess and enhance the application of new sustainable water management tools, including practices to enhance water neutrality and equity in local water service and conservation operations.

Globally, the project is expected to help address water shortage and contamination, considering transboundary implications where relevant, and mitigate a broad range of risks from the competing use of freshwater resources between industries and geographic locations.

IETC focuses on the public sector engagement and application of the water footprint and neutrality concepts within a geographical area in water-stressed regions, under the following two components:

  • Refinement and promotion of methodologies and tools for application of water footprinting, related concepts and tools, particularly for the public authorities and water bodies
  • Applying water footprinting and related concepts in selected geographical locations

IETC has partnered with the Water Footprint Network to assess the current state of methodologies and tools development to be applied within a geographical area, and to analyze examples of past and current geographical level applications. IETC is also engaged in discussions with WFN and other partners to determine suitable locations for pilot applications, to commence by 2011. The results of this ongoing work will be discussed at a consultative meeting to be held in Osaka, Japan in May 2010, in partnership with the Global Environment Centre Foundation (GEC). In addition, IETC is providing guidance and inputs on a research initiative by GEC on the state of water footprinting in Japan and at the global level, which has been supported by the Ministry of Environment of Japan.