What can governments do?

To promote sustainable development, governments will need to form coherent cross-sectoral policies – with respect to the environment, agriculture, energy, economy, trade, foreign affairs and development cooperation – that will improve integrated water resources management and governance. For example, agricultural policies and plans for economic development need to be coherent with goals for water resources protection.

How to achieve a sustainable national water footprint

Achieving a sustainable national water footprint, means working both in the country and outside its boundaries.

Governments can engage with businesses and establish mechanisms encouraging companies to be resource efficient and transparent in their water use. Creating legislation or voluntary agreements per sector to promote product transparency and disclosure on water footprint is one example of this. Governments can also engage with their citizens raising their awareness of the water footprint of their consumption and ways to reduce it.

Outside their borders governments can focus foreign aid on improving the sustainable management of water resources in locations where the external water footprint lies, work with trade partners to ensure sustainable production of goods that are imported and exported and ultimately, can work towards the promotion of international agreements on maximum sustainable water footprint limits and equitable sharing of the water footprint of consumption.

Fair and smart water use

Governments can secure long-term sustainability of freshwater resources use by:

  • Setting maximum sustainable limits for water consumption and water pollution in river basins and aquifers to ensure the appropriate balance between water people and nature. These limits can be defined through a geographic Water Footprint Assessment, which provides information on river basins’ and aquifers’ water availability and pollution assimilation capacity.
  • Establishing water footprint benchmarks for producers and sectors, based on best available technologies and practices to drive improved resource efficiency.
  • Establishing equitable allocation/fair sharing of water footprints within river basins and amongst all people.

Moving beyond traditional statistics

Extending water use statistics beyond what is traditionally accounted will provide governments with the information needed to manage their water resources and external water dependence in a comprehensive way. Traditional national water use accounts only refer to the water withdrawal within a country. They do not distinguish between water use for making products for domestic consumption and water use for producing export products. They also exclude data on water use outside the country related to the water footprint of consumption.

In addition, they include blue water use only, excluding green and grey water footprints. In order to support broader analyses and to better inform decision-making, the traditional national water use accounts need to be extended.


Extending water use statistics to include all aspects of the water footprint will broaden the basis for the formulation of integrated water resources management plans and policies, improved water governance and sustainable development.

By looking only at water use in their own country, governments tend to overlook the question of whether national consumption is sustainable. Many countries have significantly externalised their water footprint without assessing whether the imported products are related to water depletion or pollution in the producing countries. Few countries that have externalised their water footprint fully understand their resultant dependency on foreign freshwater resources and overlook the potential risks this might incur.