The water footprint scam


Editor's note: David Zetland, a Western water economist, offers an insider's perspective into water politics and economics. We will be cross-posting occasional posts and content from his blog, Aguanomics, here on the Range.

Scam may be a harsh word, since well-meaning people seem to want to improve water management, but I wonder if they aren't (un)intentionally accommodating greenwashing.

From my perspective, most water footprinting is a waste of time.* Why?

  • Most measurement requires lots of engineering assumptions. Water used in one place has a totally different impact on sustainability than water used elsewhere, but prices probably fail to reflect scarcity (sustainability) in both places.
  • Say you measure water content/impact. Then what? Do you now have FOUR bottom lines? How do you reconcile them?

It's much easier to manage to one yard-stick, such as price or profit. Why aren't corporations pushing for better water pricing? Why are they using a "green" metric that's subjective, non-operationable, and impossible to reconcile against other corporate goals (e.g., profits)?

There seems to be an entire industry out there, devoted to talking up footprints and selling services that corporations can present as green, when they seem to be more about greenwashing. Maybe footprinting is cheaper than paying more for water? Maybe corporations can say they are "green" even as they drain aquifers?

That's not good for them or us in the long run, but it may make sense in places where corporations, farmers and utilities are racing for water supplies. It may be easier than pushing fundamental reform on politicians who also prefer status quo mismanagement.

How much does it cost to say you're green?

The Water Footprint Network is offering an international water footprint training course in Amsterdam on 16-18 November 2010. About 19 hours of training costs 2300€ ($3,220) for governments, civil society, international organisations and universities or 3550€ ($4,970) for commercial organisations (business and consultants).**

What do you get? Besides case studies, you also sign this pledge of perpetual royalties to WFN [doc],

 The WFN training agreement for commercial organisations says that:

After completion of the Water Footprint Training Course I will receive a certificate.

I declare that I may use my water footprint knowledge for commercial purposes and I agree to the following conditions:
  1. I am committed to participate in refresher courses provided by the Water Footprint Network to keep up to date with the most recent developments.

  2. I always use state-of-the-art water footprint knowledge in my projects.

  3. I agree to share the knowledge and data that my organisation has generated by applying the Water Footprint methodology with the Water Footprint Network and its partners as much and widely as possible as allowed or negotiable under confidentiality agreements that might be in place.

  4. My organisation is allowed to use the Water Footprint Training Certificate and the related “trained by WFN” logo in the communications with (potential) customers to show that I have been properly trained in water footprint assessment.

  5. My organisation gives an annual donation (R&D grant) to the WFN Research & Development Fund equal to 10% of the total value of all contracts that contain Water footprint work and that are signed by my organisation, with a maximum of 1500 Euro per calendar year.

Oh yeah, I forgot about the certificate.

Bottom Line: Water footprinting has no operational, economic or social value to companies if the cost of labor and equipment to reduce water consumption exceeds the cost of the water saved. Instead let's have accurate water prices that reflect scarcity, distribution and treatment. Then let businesses figure out how much water it takes to maximize profits. That's a footprint we all understand.

* Veolia is trying to improve the water foot printing metric [pdf]. They claim their "New Tool will... ensure sustainability," but I disagree. Ensure implies 100% reliable, and politics can derail reliable in two seconds flat.

 ** WFN has a free WF e-learning course [pdf] for 15-30 November, but you have to sign up by 10 Nov.

 Originally posted at Aguanomics.