The yin and yang of virtual water

By Daniel Collins 19/10/2009

The Royal Society of New Zealand released a report on virtual water some weeks back.

The report aimed to plug a knowledge gap in NZ, primarily in the policy sector, about what ’virtual water’ means and how it can help or hinder resource management and agricultural exports. It got a smattering of indigenous press coverage (here, here, and hear).

Virtual water and its alter ego ’water footprinting’ have been getting more attention in the last few years. Following in the wake of carbon footprinting, they are an attempt to quantify our consumptive impact on water resources. Roughly 70% of the water abstracted in NZ as well as globally is used to grow crop that ultimately make it onto the dinner plate. On the one hand, we get fed; on the other, rivers go dry and aquifers shrink. Consumers are increasingly taking note.

As one of the contributors to the report, I am happy with what came out. It sets a valuable scene for policy discussions at national, regional and farm scales. On the other hand, it glossed over the question of “How should water footprinting be conducted?” And while the report is not the first mention of virtual water in New Zealand, there needs to be so much more. Crikey Creek will be one of the venues.

Virtual water analysis has two good things going for it, and one bad. Unfortunately, it is the bad that gets most traction in public discourse currently.

The good? Virtual water analysis highlights how our consumer choices and society as a whole are rooted in water – we are all hydroponic people. It can also be used to identify the most efficient use of water, say in terms of nutrition-per-drop or dollars-per-drop.

The bad? Virtual water analysis is being used as an environmental indicator of society’s impact on water resources, where in reality it misses the mark. Hence the burning question: How should water footprinting be conducted?

The details? Some answers? Rest assured, they will come. Consider this an hors d’oeuvre to whet your appetite. Just don’t ask me how much water was used to produce it.

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