Woman holding asparagus spears
A woman in Peru holding asparagus spears

Virtual water refers to the full amount of water that is needed to produce something, including water that isn’t necessarily visible in the final product – hence the term ‘virtual’.

It can, for example, include water that is used to grow food or wash a product as part of the production chain before it reaches our shops or supermarkets. To measure virtual water we often talk about the ‘water footprint’, which includes the direct and indirect water use of a product (ie the water used in its production), by a consumer, or even by a whole nation.

Click here to see our short animated film on 'waterproofing development'

This ‘footprint’ can travel across borders and links us to the rest of the world. WWF has estimated that about 62% of the UK’s water footprint is related to the consumption of imported products.

Our report Drop by drop (3.29MB PDF; or read the executive summary 360k PDF; please see also the errata note 40k PDF) demonstrates the impact of the UK's water footprint through a case study of Peruvian asparagus. The report calls for a global standard to manage water use in poor countries.

Virtual water and water footprints tell a striking story of the full scale of water needed to produce everyday food and products and where this water comes from, but this is only part of the story.

High water usage doesn’t need to be a problem if there is plenty of water around – enough to sustain a healthy ecosystem and provide essential water for the day to day needs of the surrounding communities – and if this water, and access to it, is managed in a sustainable and equitable way.

But issues arise where these needs are compromised – something which is particularly relevant in a world of increased water scarcity and variability, some directly related to climate change.

There is an urgent need for the world to better understand the true impact of virtual water and water footprints, including the impact on the poorest and most vulnerable communities. This is also relevant in the light of climate change. Progressio is working with other organisations to further the understanding of this critical issue and contribute with concrete suggestions on ways forward.