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Addressing water quality in water footprinting: current status, methods and limitations

Mikosch, Natalia; Berger, Markus; Finkbeiner, Matthias

Purpose: In contrast to water consumption, water pollution has gained less attention in water footprinting so far. Unlike water scarcity impact assessment, on which a consensus has recently been achieved, there is no agreement on how to address water quality deterioration in water footprinting. This paper provides an overview of existing water footprint methods to calculate impacts associated with water pollution and discusses their strengths and limitations using an illustrative example. Methods: The methods are described and applied to a case study for the wastewater generated in textile processing. The results for two scenarios with different water quality parameters are evaluated against each other and the water scarcity footprint (WSF). Finally, methodological aspects, strengths and limitations of each method are analysed and discussed and recommendations for the methods application are provided. Results and discussion: Two general impact assessment approaches exist to address water quality in water footprinting: the Water Degradation Footprint (WDF) calculates the impacts associated with the propagation of released pollutants in the environment and their uptake by the population and ecosystem, while the Water Availability Footprint (WAF) quantifies the impacts related to the water deprivation, when polluted water cannot be used. Overall, seven methods to consider water quality in water footprinting were identified, which rely upon one or a combination of WDF, WAF and WSF. Methodological scopes significantly vary regarding the inventory requirements and provided results (a single-score or several impact categories). The case study demonstrated that the methods provide conflicting results concerning which scenario is less harmful with regard to the water pollution. Conclusions: This paper provides a review of the water pollution assessment methods in water footprinting and analyses their modelling choices and resulting effects on the WF. With regard to the identified inconsistencies, we reveal the urgent need for a guidance for the methods application to provide robust results and allow a consistent evaluation of the water quality in water footprinting.
Published in: The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 10.1007/s11367-020-01838-1, SpringerNature