Advancing water footprint assessments: Combining the impacts of water pollution and scarcity

Éléonore Pierrat*, Alexis Laurent, Martin Dorber, Martin Rygaard, Francesca Verones, Michael Hauschild

*Corresponding author for this work

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Several water footprint indicators have been developed to curb freshwater stress. Volumetric footprints support water allocation decisions and strive to increase water productivity in all sectors. In contrast, impact-oriented footprints are used to minimize the impacts of water use on human health, ecosystems, and freshwater resources. Efforts to combine both perspectives in a harmonized framework have been undertaken, but common challenges remain, such as pollution and ecosystems impacts modelling. To address these knowledge gaps, we build upon a water footprint assessment framework proposed at conceptual level to expand and operationalize relevant features. We propose two regionalized indicators, namely the water biodiversity footprint and the water resource footprint, that aggregate all impacts from toxic chemicals, nutrients, and water scarcity. The first impact indicator represents the impacts on freshwater ecosystems. The second one models the competition for freshwater resources and its consequences on freshwater availability. As part of the framework, we complement the two indicators with a sustainability assessment representing the levels above which ecological and human freshwater needs are no longer sustained. We test our approach assessing the sustainability of water use in the European Union in 2010. Water stress hampers 15 % of domestic, agricultural and industrial water demand, mainly due to irrigation and pesticide emissions in southern Europe. Moreover, damages to the freshwater ecosystems are widespread and mostly resulting from chemical emissions from industry. Approximately 5 % of the area is exceeding the regional sustainability limits for ecosystems and human water requirements altogether. Concerted efforts from all sectors are needed to reduce the impacts of emissions and water consumption under the sustainability limits. These advances are considered an important step toward the harmonization of volumetric and impact-oriented approaches to achieve consistent and holistic water footprinting as well as contributing to strengthen the policy relevance of water footprint assessments.
Original languageEnglish
Article number161910
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Éléonore Pierrat acknowledges that this study was supported by the Fraunhofer-DTU project EDES (eco-design Stewardship), advancing eco-design excellence, supporting the aeronautics European - Clean Sky Programme.


  • Life cycle assessment
  • Sustainability
  • Impact assessment
  • Freshwater
  • Water management


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