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The Shape of Water Resources Worldwide: AWARE Brings New Levels of Visibility

Water is an increasingly high priority for governments in all parts of the world, and for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and there’s been a resulting increase in development of methods to quantify and optimize responsible water usage. 

One of the leading metrics for LCA practitioners is AWAREWULCA AWARE logo of Water Scarcity Footprint (Available WAter REmaining), which was developed by the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative working group on Water Use in LCA (WULCA). AWARE has emerged as an internationally recommended method for applying the ISO 14046 standard and conducting water scarcity footprint analyses. Following a five-year development process, its principles, requirements, and guidelines have been established and AWARE has become the global consensus on water scarcity for LCA.

We were fortunate to have WUCLA project manager Anne-Marie Boulay, a water footprint expert and postdoctoral researcher at Canada’s Université de Sherbrooke, lead a recent EarthShift Global Brown Bag webinar discussion of AWARE. 

Dr. Boulay explained that AWARE evolved from the earlier water footprint metric, which accounts for water volumes along a product supply chain and assesses potential water-related environmental impacts at each step of a product life cycle. 

While a water footprint looks only at impacts such as water scarcity, water availability, and water degradation, the AWARE method also includes regionally-specific issues, which are important for accurately assessing specific individual situations. AWARE also considers both quantity and quality of the water assessed, allowing for more thoughtful decision-making in areas where water may be abundant but is also heavily polluted. Lastly, the method can be used on its own or as part of LCA. 

Another group working in this area is the Water Footprint Network (WFN), which has developed water-type classifications - blue water (freshwater lakes, rivers and aquifers), green water (which is temporarily stored in/on soil or vegetation and evaporates via transpiration), and grey water (water required to dilute pollutants to a quality that meets accepted standards). Additional definitions can be found on the Water Footprint Network’s glossary page. 
Some noteworthy metrics:

WTA: Withdrawal-to-Availability
CTA: Consumption-to-Availability 
DTA: Demand-to-Availability (includes humans and ecosystems demand)
AWARE = Availability minus Demand

My biggest takeaway from Dr. Boulay’s webinar is that there are many different ways to consider water scarcity and each has its role in assessing different situations. 

There are, for example, certain regions where employing a spatial view matters, and other regions where using a temporal lens in absolutely crucial. While a place like the Sahara has extremely low water availability, demand there is much lower than in other regions with low water availability like the Middle East. Places in South Asia may only have high water availability for part of the year, and during that part may experience extreme flooding which can cause that water to become contaminated. 

The emerging range of water scarcity indices can help us compare conditions in different areas of the world that are dealing with unique water situations. Methods like AWARE are at the forefront of data synthesis and analysis and it is exciting to see advancements being made in this global assessment work.


photo of jillian crowley, junior analyst

About the Author

Jillian Crowley, EarthShift Global's junior sustainability analyst, conducts Life Cycle Inventory (LCI), Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) studies for EarthShift Global clients, and assists with project management and development of tools for LCA and Sustainable Return on Investment (S-ROI).