International water footprint standard in development

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Growing water demand, increasing scarcity, and degradation of water quality means that its use and management have become central to the global debate on sustainability. To improve water management, we first need a better understanding of related impacts and consistent assessment techniques to identify our water footprint and report results. To address this, an ISO working group is developing ISO 14046, Environmental management – Water footprint – Principles, requirements, and guidelines, which is expected to be published by mid-2014.

ISO 14046 will specify principles, requirements, and guidelines on the water footprint assessment of products, processes, and organisations, based on life-cycle assessment. It can be used to conduct and report a water footprint assessment.

Who will benefit?

ISO 14046 is expected to benefit organisations, governments, and interested parties worldwide by providing transparency, consistency, and credibility to the task of assessing water footprint and reporting the water footprint results of products, processes, or organisations.

What is a water footprint assessment?

According to ISO 14046, a water footprint assessment:

  • relies on a life-cycle assessment
  • is modular (that is, the different life-cycle stages of the water footprint can be summed up to represent the water footprint)
  • identifies potential environmental impacts related to water
  • includes relevant geographical and temporal dimensions
  • identifies the quantity of water used and changes in water quality
  • uses hydrological knowledge.

How will it help?

A water footprint assessment can help in:

  • assessing the magnitude of potential environmental impacts related to water
  • identifying opportunities to reduce water-related potential impacts associated with products at various life-cycle stages, and with processes and organisations
  • evolving a risk management strategic related to water
  • facilitating water efficiency and the optimisation of water management at product, process, and organisational levels
  • informing decision-makers in industry, government, or non-governmental organisations of their potential impacts related to water (for example, for the purpose of strategic planning, priority setting, product, or process design or redesign, and decisions about the investment of resources)
  • providing scientifically consistent and reliable information for reporting water footprint results.

Water use and management have become central to the global debate on sustainability

A water footprint assessment alone is not enough to describe the overall potential environmental impacts of products, processes, services, or organisations, including the impacts on ecosystems, human health, and resources. However, an assessment conducted in conformity with ISO 14046 can be treated as a stand-alone result focusing only on impacts related to water.

It can also be part of a more comprehensive environmental assessment. The results will provide a single value or a profile of indicator results. In ISO 14046, the term 'water footprint' is used only when it is the result of an impact assessment.

Note: ISO working group (WG) 8, Water footprint, is developing ISO 14046. ISO WG 8 sits within technical committee 207, Environmental management, subcommittee 5, Life cycle assessment.

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Summarised from ISO Focus+, July/August 2013.

Published in environment.