Baby steps toward a smaller water footprint

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Angela Godwin, Chief Editor

Reducing water consumption in industrial processes is a topic we discuss frequently in Industrial WaterWorld. On a global scale, quantifying how much water it takes to produce a product -- whether in food and beverage, pulp and paper, textiles, or oil and gas production -- is an important component of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals for its post-2015 development agenda.

In August 2012, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) to assemble and mobilize the scientific and technical expertise needed to accomplish the organization's sustainability goals. In May 2013, SDSN released its "Action Agenda for Sustainable Development." The list of ten objectives encompasses a wide variety of topics, from ending extreme poverty to achieving gender equality. Nestled in at number nine is "Secure Ecosystem Services and Biodiversity, and Ensure Good Management of Water, Oceans, Forests, and Natural Resources.” It's a pretty broad goal, but one of the targets it puts forth is identifying the percentage of total water resources used (which was also an indicator in the original Millennium Development Goal 7).

The SDSN acknowledged in its report, however, that water usage cuts across all of the Sustainable Development Goals. As such, it proposed that water use be integrated into each of the corresponding goals and that the need for integrated management of freshwater resources be highlighted.

So, how much water are we using in our processes? The challenge has been -- and continues to be -- finding a consistent way to measure one's 'water footprint.' To address that challenge, ISO (International Organization for Standardization) has released a new standard that, it says, will give organizations -- from industry to government to NGOs -- a framework for measuring the potential environmental impact of their water use and pollution.

"You can see there are so many indicators around the world that declare [their] water footprint, carbon footprint, environmental footprint," said Alessandro Manzardo, Italian delegate to ISO/TC 207, the technical committee that developed ISO 14046. "But definitely there is a need to set the rules and requirements and also guidelines on how to communicate this footprint in order to make more transparent the communication and also ... to make the consumer aware of what is really an environmentally friendly product."

ISO 14046, Environmental Management – Water Footprint – Principles, Requirements and Guidelines, was developed by experts from around the world and is based on a lifecycle assessment.

The standard aims to help assess the magnitude of potential environmental impacts related to water; identify ways to reduce those impacts; facilitate water efficiency and optimization of water management at product, process and organizational levels; and provide scientifically consistent and reliable information for reporting water footprint results that can be tracked over time.

"I would say it's a very interesting standard because it incorporates new concepts, new values, that [apply to] products and processes but also organization,” said Manzardo. "This is also something that is dealt with in a new specification that we'll soon publish, which is ISO 14072 about lifecycle assessment of organizations."

According to ISO, the standard also includes geographical and temporal dimensions and identifies the quantity of water used as well as changes in water quality.

For more information about the standard, visit iso.org.

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