Switzerland’s water footprint is measured for the first time

Article, 12.03.2012

The SDC, WWF together with the interdepartemental goup IDANE Wasser, have published the first ever report on Switzerland’s water footprint. Finding: 82% of the water required to produce all the goods and services consumed in our country comes from abroad. The report emphasises that Switzerland has a shared responsibility in respect of sustainable water management on a planetary level, and proposes a set of recommendations.

A Swiss citizen consumes on average 162 litres of water per day. But this amount only takes account of direct requirements: drink, cooking and household needs. To this should be added «virtual water», meaning the water required to produce all the goods and services individually consumed. The production of a kilo of rice for example swallows up 2,500 litres of water, whilst a kilo of cotton requires 10,000. Taking into account this virtual water, the total water consumption per inhabitant amounts to 4,187 litres a day.

 

What exactly is the water footprint?

The Water Footprint is a measurement of water consumption which can be calculated for an individual, a business, a town or a country. It includes direct water consumption as well as indirect consumption: that required for the production of all goods and services consumed. For example, it takes 1,300 litres of water to produce one kilo of wheat, 5,000 litres for a kilo of cheese and 15,400 litres for a kilo of beef.

 

A substantial importation of indirect water

Drafted by the SDC and the WWF, the report on Switzerland’s water footprint turns the spotlight not only on the amount, but also the origin, of the water required to satisfy the Swiss consumer. Henceforth calculations will include goods and services imported from abroad and the amount of water required for their production. Of the 11 billion litres which go into making up Switzerland’s water footprint, only 18% comes from its own sources, whereas 82% comes from abroad.

When the water footprint becomes problematic

The report’s authors specify that a high water footprint is not in itself that dramatic. What does pose a problem is the removal of water from regions with a negative water balance sheet or which suffer from a non-sustainable management of their resources. They have thus identified a list of six large water basins from which Switzerland imports produce and which suffer large water deficits, amongst which, the basins of the Ganges, the Euphrates and the Nile.

So, what can be done?

According to the researchers who participated in the study, taking measures to restrict the importation of goods and services produced in regions subject to water stress would be a mistake. The populations of these regions are invariably poorer than those in countries where water flows in abundance. Boycotting their goods would lead to a deterioration in their living conditions without contributing a sustainable answer to the water problem.

It is however necessary that local actors move towards a sustainable management of their water resources, and Switzerland, through its cooperation programmes in particular, can assist them in this. Swiss businesses importing goods from these regions also carry their share of responsibility. What is more, the most progressive amongst them are already involved in evaluating and in managing the risks and have implemented appropriate measures.

The SDC believes Switzerland must continue to pursue its commitment - be it on the level of international political dialogue or by seeking innovative solutions - to the sustainable management of our most precious planetary possession.