ISO considers potential standard on water footprint

ISO is considering the development of a new standard to provide internationally harmonized metrics for water footprints.

by Mélanie Raimbault and Sebastien Humbert *

Currently at the stage of a Preliminary Work Item (PWI), ISO 14046, Water footprint – Requirements and guidelines, would complement existing standards on life cycle assessment (LCA) and ongoing work on carbon footprint metrics by ISO technical committee ISO/TC 207, Environmental management. It would also take into account the ISO 14064 standards on the accounting and verification of greenhouse gases (GHG).

ISO/PWI 14046 is being studied by the new working group WG 8 set up by ISO/TC 207 subcommittee SC 5, Life cycle assessment.

At its first meeting, WG 8 proposed a scope for the standard as specifying "requirements and guidelines to assess and report water footprints based on LCA". The standard would:

■Deliver principles, requirements and guidelines for a water footprint metric of products, processes and organizations, based on the guidance of impact assessment as given in ISO 14044

■Define how the different types of water sources (e.g., ground water) and water releases (e.g., grey water) should be considered, and how local environmental (e.g., dry/wet areas) and socio-economic (e.g., developed/developing countries) conditions should be treated

■Address the communication issues linked to water footprinting (based on ISO 14020 series on environmental labels and declarations)

■Be compatible with the rest of the ISO 14000 family of environmental management standards.

It is not being proposed that the standard should offer a methodology for calculating offsets or compensation, but it would address positive aspects, such as the benefits of decreasing the water footprint.

The background to interest in an ISO standard is that freshwater is an important natural resource which is increasingly scarce and, therefore, its effective use requires internationally consistent measurement and management tools, processes and practices.

Due to the current lack of international standards in this area, business organizations around the world apply different definitions and criteria to report water use in their environmental reports, or in product packaging or documentation.

For example, a distinction between water borrowing (e.g., cleaning water released after use to the nearest body of water) and water consumption (e.g., evaporated water that is no longer available for further use) is often lacking and gives rise to confusing information regarding the use of water by organizations.

Growing issue

The water footprint is a growing issue, as illustrated by numerous conferences on the subject and the number of organizations and initiatives addressing it, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Water Footprint Network, and the Life Cycle Initiative jointly led by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.

In addition, there are already product labelling initiatives which aim at reporting water use in addition to GHG and/or other life cycle base indicators.

An ISO water footprint standard would also fill an important gap in its environmental management portfolio. This is because freshwater use is rarely considered as an impact category in present LCA studies and in other ISO standards. In LCAs, water consumption is typically treated as an intermediate product to be used for the life cycle inventory, without further consideration of whether the water is used from limited resources in dry areas, or from abundant and renewable resources in wet areas. The resulting information is therefore of limited use in decision making.

A standard that can explain and describe what a water footprint is will therefore be crucial to ensure coherence with other environmental metrics such as life cycle-based indicators, especially the carbon footprint, as well as with the other standards of the ISO 14000 family.

* Mélanie Raimbault is Secretary of  ISO/TC 207, Environmental management, SC 5, Life Cycle assessment. Sébastien Humbert is Convener of ISO/TC 207, Environmental management, SC 5, Life Cycle assessment, WG 8, Water footprint.
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