Moderator Endorsed: E-STEM Education
Moderator Endorsed: E-STEM Education
teacher and three students in classroom
Photo credit: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

The Big Picture: Water Footprints’ Value to Environmental and Science Education

Incorporating water into classroom or educational programs often means teaching about the water cycle or water pollution, and sometimes, water conservation. Thus, much of water education for the environmental and earth sciences tends to be somewhat limited. Because water seems so familiar, the topic can seem, well, dry. 

In reality, water education touches many fields, including hydrology and aquatic biology, natural resource management and climate science, and even social science and the arts. In this light, “teaching about water” can become overwhelming for those teaching environmental education. This is especially true given the numerous interrelated crises teachers and their students face, from the COVID-19 pandemic to climate disasters, to water and food shortages. 

For educators who want to go beyond the water cycle, where do they start? What teaching strategy offers a useful perspective that engages students? One approach is the water footprint, a concept developed to account for and analyze the many ways humans use, overuse, and generally depend on water.  

Water Footprints 101

The water footprint was created around the same time as its better-known cousin, the carbon footprint, by the late Dutch scientist, Arjen Hoekstra. Hoekstra wanted a concept that could explain how freshwater is consumed in most human activities, from the more obvious, like farming and food production, to the more obscure, like energy production.

What’s novel about the water footprint concept is that it accounts for two types of water use.

The first type of water use is direct water use. Direct water use includes actions where water use is seen and felt, like water from the kitchen sink or shower, or water from a hose to irrigate a lawn.

The second type of water use is indirect water use—also called virtual water use—which includes all the “hidden water” required at every step of production to create the goods and services you buy and use every day. For example, growing and producing food, producing energy and manufacturing consumer goods can all require a huge amount of water. This virtual water makes up the vast majority of water used by a person, business, country, product, process or service.

Together, direct water use and virtual water use are combined to form a water footprint. The water footprint is further broken down into three components: surface water and groundwater (called “blue water footprint”); rainwater (“green water footprint”); and water used to dilute or make wastewater safe to return it surrounding waters (“grey water footprint”).

Water footprints are valuable because they describe how water systems are inseparable from food and energy systems as they interact. The course of water can be traced as it flows through these systems that, together, make modern life possible.

To achieve water security means that water resources are managed and distributed fairly to all parts of society. Water security doesn’t happen by accident; it is the result of constant attention, planning and management. Nevertheless, providing ample amounts of clean freshwater to communities, from small localities to vast regions, is challenging because the amount of freshwater on Earth is fixed and varies based on local climate and conditions.

Furthermore, water crises already cover much of the planet, with about 50 percent of the world experiencing water scarcity for at least one month per year. Globally, demand for water is increasing as both populations and prosperity grow. At the same time, water availability is falling due to competition over water and climate change variability. These water use trends are expected to continue with local situations worsening in many places, especially in dry regions or rapidly developing areas with crushing water pollution. Even in the relatively water-rich United States, a 2013 survey found that 40 out of 50 state water managers expected water shortages in parts of their states under average conditions through 2024. Such challenging circumstances resulted in a “planetary boundary” for freshwater use and environmental flows, which proposed requirements to maintain resilience and avoid cascading problems at the local and regional levels.

Water Education to Avoid Crises

Why should students learn about their water footprints?

If the goal of any society is stability and prosperity, then water security—or the provision of adequate amounts of clean water for human needs—underpins it all. No water, no life, as the adage goes.

Because of the challenges we face for such a basic resource, better understanding of water starts with educating individuals and the community. A concept like the water footprint can help students recognize how their habits and lifestyles fit into the larger context and contribute to problems and how they can become part of the solution.

Typically, when a crisis like a severe drought strikes, official water conservation campaigns target people in the affected areas to turn off the kitchen faucet or take shorter showers. While household water reductions do successfully contribute to water conservation, particularly in acute drought scenarios, new research underscores the need for an expanded menu of water conservation measures to target larger water users such as those in agriculture or power production. So, in addition to recommending that the faucets are turned off and showers are shortened, recommendations like reducing food waste and turning off lights might have an even greater water conservation impact.

Lessons Ahead

Without an introduction that explains how a beef burger you eat or a new smart phone you buy are so water-intensive to produce, there’s no way to understand the scale of people’s collective impact on water resources.

Water footprints can span that information gulf.

The Water Footprint Calculator (WFC) project has spent more than 10 years helping students understand how they use water throughout their day, even when they don’t see it. We launched the innovative Water Footprint Calculator in 2007, a tool that gives the visitor an estimate of their water footprint by walking them through their daily routines. Nearly two million people—the majority of them K-16 students—have used the calculator since 2015. The calculator appears in both English and Spanish, as do the 100-plus water saving tips (English and Spanish).

Last year, we launched free, downloadable “Lessons for Understanding Our Water Footprint” for High School (ages 15-18) and Middle School (ages 12-14). Each band of these lesson plans are comprehensive and standards-aligned to Common Core (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), among others. They have been rated an “On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Activity” by the 2020 National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

In addition, the WFC website is filled with educational resources and other helpful content, like Water Footprint 101, news articles and more, all of which help students understand what it means to live on a “water planet.”

In these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the basics of clean water, health and security are top of mind. People of all ages want to know how things work and how we can pitch in, overcome obstacles and work towards a better future. To broaden your students’ scientific and environmental understanding, and to engage them on one of the most elemental but overlooked subjects of the day, water footprints are an inclusive and broadening addition to classroom and educational programming.


I used this Water Footprint Calculator with my 7th grade students in December. They really enjoyed exploring the website and calculating their family water footprint. Thier results sparked a great discussion on what caused some students to have water footprints higher than others and ways to conserve water. They were surprised how much effect eating meat had on their water footprint! They were also very interested in virtual water use, as they had never considered that aspect. The downloadable lessons were really helpful to me in planning how to use the water footprint calculator. Thanks for sharing this valuable resource!