Water footprint

A product water footprint is usually based on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methodology, incorporating both direct and indirect water uses.

Calculation of the water footprint of a product using LCA methodology should be based on the ISO 14000 series, specifically ISO 14040, ISO 14044, and ISO 14046.  In conformance with ISO14046 and to answer the needs around the issue of water, the assessment should take into consideration water consumption and water degradation.

A decision to calculate the water footprint of a product is a conscious decision to focus on one environmental issue at a time. Other environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions or land use should be taken into consideration, when possible, in order to address the environmental impacts of the global dairy sector in a holistic manner.


Water is a finite and vulnerable vital resource. Water scarcity is an increasing problem that simultaneously affects society, the environment, and food production. On farms, climate change is likely to further exacerbate the pressure on surface and groundwater supplies. At the same time, the projected increase in agricultural production required to feed the world over the coming decades makes the water challenge a top priority, as approximately 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used by agriculture. The issues of water and agriculture are intertwined – without water there is no farming. Therefore, to tackle the challenge of food security, the challenge of water has to be met first.

Dairy and agriculture are water intensive activities and water use and impacts can vary widely depending on region, crop irrigation, and type of crop. Depending on regional availability and other demands, irrigation account for up to 90% of water withdrawn from available sources. Furthermore, of these irrigation withdrawals in agriculture, approximately 15% to 35% worldwide are estimated to be unsustainable (Siebert et al. 2010a; Wada et al. 2010).

In this context of global water scarcity and food security concerns, water footprinting is emerging as an important sustainability indicator in the agricultural and food sectors. There are different alternatives in methodologies alongside ongoing efforts to develop a standard in water footprinting. Water footprints can focus on different goals, such as water quantity or quality. Meanwhile, different tools exist to understand and account for water use along the supply chains and risks related to it.

This guide has been developed at the request of the 47 IDF member countries representing approximately 75 per cent of the world’s milk production, since it has become evident to all concerned that the wide range of figures resulting from the differing methodologies and data is leading to inconsistent results, incongruent interpretation, uncertainty in decision-making, and communication challenges. This poses a real danger of confusion and contradiction, which in turn could create a false impression that the industry is failing to actively engage with the issue of water consumption and degradation.


IDF’s goal in developing sector-specific guidelines is to:

  • Increase understanding about the concept of water footprint assessment;
  • Provide transparency about the product’s water profile within its life cycle; enable monitoring, quantification, and evaluation of the potential environmental impacts related to water use from cradle to the manufacturing gate out, both in terms of quantity and quality;
  • Orient the identification of “hotspots” (areas targeted for consumption reduction);
  • Enable the establishment of an indicator that can be used to measure progress on the actions taken to improve efficiency.

Different water accounting and impact methodologies have emerged over the last years, and it is important to note that these are not mutually exclusive, although there is some overlap. From the outset, the IDF was committed to reviewing existing standardisation work and collaborating with organisations that were already involved in improving the standardisation of LCA methodology. Where a suitable model is already in existence, this has been used.

The Water Use in LCA (WULCA) working group, as part of the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative, has been working on a framework that facilitates parallel use of different impact characterization methods, since 2007. The result of its efforts is detailed on its website (http://www.wulca-waterlca.org/) and partially described further in this document.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has worked on building international guidelines for water footprint measurement. ISO 14040 ‘Life cycle assessments’ (REF) provides an important basis for framework and principles, and ISO 14044 (2006) ‘Environmental management – life cycle assessment’ (REF) provides requirements and guidelines. The ISO draft standard `water footprint – principles, requirements and guidance` (ISO 14046) was approved in February 2014 and the IDF was engaged with the processes where practicable.

Ultimately, the IDF work on sector-specific water assessment will represent a major contribution to the FAO-lead multi-stakeholder partnership on the environmental benchmarking of the livestock supply chain (LEAP). This three-year initiative started in July 2012. International institutions, governments, NGOs and livestock private sector organisations (including IDF) will mutually develop science-based methods and guidelines on quantification of environmental performance addressing greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, nutrient losses (water quality) and biodiversity. The partnership will also enable IDF to promote and improve its existing expertise in the area of life cycle assessment. IDF Guidelines will continue to be a working document and will be adapted according to international ISO standards if these are adopted in future.