Understanding Water Footprints for Future Sustainability of Dairy Farming
Authors: Dr. H R Meena, Sitaram Bishnoi and A. P.Verma
Dairy Extension Division, ICAR-NDRI, Karnal-132001

Water footprint as the virtual water content of a product (the total volume of fresh water used within all stages of the supply chain). The real-water content of products is generally negligible if compared to the virtual-water content. For example, liters of milk may contain nearly a liter of water but the whole supply chain consumed 1000 liters of water including water to grow the forage and concentrates to feed the animal, drinking water, washing water, cleaning water, cooling water and processing water. However, surprisingly little attention among scientists or policy makers is given to the relationship between meat and dairy products consumption and water use. Livestock water productivity does not seek to maximize the number of livestock or the production of animal products and services. Rather, it opens opportunities to produce the same benefits with fewer animals and less demand for agricultural water. The per capita water use in India will increase from the current level of 99 liters’ per day to 167 liters’ per day in 2050. The total available drinkable water in the country is 4000 billion m3 per annum. Out of this, over 1047 billion m3 water is lost due to evaporation, transpiration and runoff, reducing the available water to 1953 billion m3 and the usable water to 1123 billion m3. It is disturbing to note that only 18% of the rainwater is used effectively while 48% enters the river and most of which reaches the ocean. Out of the total usable water, 728 billion m3 is contributed from surface water and 395 billion m3 is contributed by replenishable ground water. Against the above supply, the water consumed during the year 2006 in India was 829 billion m3 which is likely to increase to 1093 billion m3 in 2025 and 1047 billion m3 in 2050, GOI (2009). As the potential for increasing the volume of utilization of water is hardly 5-10%, India is bound to face severe scarcity of water in the near future. Based on the average requirement of water for various purposes, the situation is considered as water stress condition when the per capita water availability ranges from 1000 to 1700 m3 per year.

The virtual water concept has evolved to represent the large quantities of hidden water 'embedded' in our goods and services. Importantly, the virtual water concept has gained nuance and depth of meaning as researchers have defined distinctions between different types of water and different contexts within which this water is used. Note that the virtual water concept and its practical application (in the form of Water Footprint) have lost their separate identities in the popular literature. The Water Footprint Network (WFN) defines the volumetric WF as the virtual water content of a product; that is, the total volume of freshwater used within all stages of the supply chain. The adjective ‘virtual’ refers to the fact. Recent research has shown that about 27% of the water footprint of humanity is related to the production of animal products (Mekonnen and Hoekstra, 2012). Only 4% of the water footprint of humanity relates to water use at home. This means that if people consider reducing their water footprint, they should look critically at their diet rather than at their water use in the kitchen, bathroom, and garden. The supply chain of an animal product starts with feed crop cultivation and ends with the consumer. In each step of the chain, there is a direct water footprint, which refers to the water consumption in that step, but also an indirect water footprint, which refers to the water consumption in the previous steps. By far, the largest contribution to the total water footprint of all final animal products comes from the first step: growing the feed. This step is the most far removed from the consumer, which explains why consumers generally have little notion about the fact that animal products require a lot of land and water. As expected, the water footprint in organic farming has a much lower water footprint because of the absence of water pollution through pesticides. The water footprint in India is not sustainable. In many places, ground water is overexploited and river flows get depleted. Livestock production to be among the greatest threats to sustainable water use over the coming decades. The large volumes of water is necessary to produce human food from livestock is the major concern. Understanding spatial changes in the distribution and structure of livestock production systems in relation to agricultural water can help to identify areas where considerations of livestock-water interactions can enhance the sustainability and returns on livestock investments. As a consequence livestock water development must be considered holistically and take into account benefits to every aspect of the environment.


1. Mekonnen, M. M. and Hoekstra, A. Y. (2012) A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal product. Ecosystem, 15:401-415.

About Author / Additional Info:
I am currently working as Senior Scientist in Dairy Extension Division, ICAR-National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal-132001 Haryana (India). I have also worked with ICAR-Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar-243122 Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh (India) as Scientist for 10 year. Also a recipient of the ICAR’s prestigious "The Swami Sahajanand Saraswati Outstanding Extension Scientist Award" in social science.