22. Revisiting Coffee’s Water Footprint

Awhile back, Paul Hicks touched on taking another look at the water footprint methodology for coffee in this post. This post is a continuation of that conversation and will consider a few more items that need to be thought of when discussing the water footprint of coffee. It is important to understand its current limitations before we can develop a more robust framework for improving coffee’s water footprint, which will be critical as we continue to battle climate change in the coffee sector.

The following points are summary of an article published by Dr. Wichelns in 2015 in the Journal of Ecological Indicators titled, “Virtual water and water footprints do not provide helpful insight regarding international trade or water scarcity.” This article touches on a few items raised by Paul in his last post on this topic, but also brings to light at least two other key points.

Consumers in one country cannot fix water issues in another

Briefly, virtual water trade is the trading of virtual water between countries when goods are imported or exported, i.e. when coffee is imported, the current methodology would suggest that importing countries gain a high amount of virtual water due to the high water footprint of coffee. This suggests that we siphon off virtual water from origin countries when we import coffee, which is obviously not ideal. The solution that may come to mind is that we should stop importing coffee (the horror!) and thereby, reducing our consumption of another country’s virtual water. However, what Dr. Wichelns drives at is that water scarcity and water quality are extremely localized. Water scarcity occurs when the demand in an area exceeds its supply and degradation of water quality is typically linked to poor government water policy and enforcement. Also, the current coffee water footprint methodology does not incorporate regional or political factors (such as level of rainfall, treatment requirements, geography, etc.). Because of this, if all of the coffee consumers in the United States decided to stop drinking coffee due to our conviction about how much virtual water we’re stealing, it will not necessarily reduce water quality or scarcity issues in coffee growing regions because of these other factors not accounted for in virtual water trade.

Water is one of many resources required to grow coffee

Water footprint methodologies are inherently narrow, the coffee water footprint methodology even more-so. It may be convenient to compare water footprints of different coffee crops in different regions to each other and select what we deem to be the most water-friendly, but the current water footprint methodology does not incorporate the array of other resources required to produce coffee. These resources include infrastructure, labor, land, soil, sunlight, and so on. And it does not necessarily need to incorporate these resources as inputs when computing a water footprint, but those of us who like to talk about water sometimes only like to talk about water, especially in light of climate change.

Water footprint methodology will be a significant tool for developing proper coffee watershed management policy and for combating climate change. Now that we’ve discussed its current limitation regarding coffee, it’s time to move into developing a new framework and its application. Stay tuned!


Wichelns, D. 2015. “Virtual water and water footprints do not provide helpful insight regarding international trade or water scarcity.” J. of Ecological Indicators.

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