The Global Water Footprint of Humanity is a self-initiated project based on research carried out by the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education and the University of Twente in the Netherlands. It aims to visualize and make tangible the impact of human consumption on the natural water environment through a 900 pages book, a flash animation, maps and models.
The water footprint concept is a practical tool to analyze how much water is used for producing our goods and services, showing how countries can externalize their water footprint in order to reduce the pressure on the domestic water resources, and how other countries can profit from their relative abundance of water by exporting water rich commodities.
The project was awarded Honorable Mention for outstanding work at the INDEX:|AIGA Aspen Design Challenge Designing Water’s Future.
The data have been drawn from: Water footprints of nations (Chapagain, A.K. and Hoekstra, A.Y. 2004), Globalization of water: Sharing the planet’s freshwater resources (Hoekstra, A.Y. and Chapagain, A.K. 2008), www.waterfootprint.org.
Aim of the 900 pages book is to explain a series of issues using the effectiveness of information design, through a deep understanding of the subject, through diagrams, pondered color coding, symbols, drawings, photographs.
The first five sections of the book illustrate the state of freshwater resources, the hydrological cycle, the main reasons behind the water crisis, the concept of virtual water and the utility of the water footprint indicator. The sixth section visualizes in detail the water footprint of 132 countries.
A satellite image (Google Earth Professional) opens the analysis of each country telling a story about water, about consumption, about human presence. I have travelled through the world in search of water, I have realized the predominance of the oceans and the delicate rarity of freshwater, through the rivers that silently travel thousands miles to reach the most remote village on the planet. I have probed each country, its freshwater resources, its lakes and snow, its fields and its barren soil. I have realized that, all over the world, people shape their water resources through harbours and dams, diverting water to irrigate the soil and to service the needs of urban and industrial centres. Millions of houses have reminded me how many people need water in order to survive and how many have no access to safe, drinking water.
The maps immediately conveys that we use about 3.6% of our freshwater resources for domestic needs, 4.4% to produce the industrial products we consume, such as paper, cotton, clothes and we use 92% of our freshwater resources for the production of food.
The graduated symbol maps represent the values for the five water footprint components per capita of 132 countries. Graduated symbol maps usually use symbols of different sizes, rather than color, placed within a region, country, continent, to denote the value ascribed to it. The choice of replacing the geographical world map with the diagram based on an hexagonal grid comes from two main reasons.
The use of geographical map projections can be generally misleading for representing data, because the geographical structure constrains to place the graduated symbols according to an order that it is not necessary to display the information.
That unnecessary order is responsible for misreading the graduated symbols and for having an overall misrepresentation of truth. Some areas of the geographic projections such as Eastern Europe will appear very dense of symbols, some others will appear almost empty, and the size of the symbols will be perceived differently according to the area within which they are placed. When we deal with volumes of water use, the only way to make a cross countries comparison is to consider per capita values. The use of a geographical map can be further problematic when we have to represent per capita values. Placing a graduated symbol within a country can lead to think that the symbol refer to the entire population, unless we read the index or the title of the map that will explain what sort of variables are representing. In order to avoid any mistake the use of a ‘per capita diagram’ can be incredibly successful. The diagram is designed to follow the principle that 1 country = 1 inhabitant = 1 unit grid. The diagram respects as much as possible the mutual geographical borders and it is made of the 132 countries/units analyzed in this study.
The symbols were designed using a grid structure whose proportions come from the water molecule geometry. Three models represent the concept of virtual water, foundation of the water footprint indicator introduced by Prof. Arjen Hoekstra. Virtual water is defined as the amount of water consumed in the production process of a product. Prof. Tony Allan claim that people do not only consume water when they drink it or take a shower. In 1993 he strikingly demonstrated this by introducing the “virtual water” concept, which measures how water is embedded in the production and trade of food and consumer products. ‘Behind that morning cup of coffee are 140 litres of water used to grow, produce, package and ship the beans. That is roughly the same amount of water used by an average person daily in England for drinking and household needs. The ubiquitous hamburger needs an estimated 2,400 litres of water. Per capita, Americans consume around 6,800 litres of virtual water every day, over triple that of a Chinese person.’
The Project Journal
This is a booklet that tells the design process behind the project. In a self initiated project everyone is one’s own client. That means planning everything, being aware of time we spend gathering information, researching, studying and designing every single detail. Many times it happened that I had to change my plan, because the unexpected occurred, but having a time line on my wall has been essential not to lose myself. ‘Creativity does not mean improvisation without method’ Bruno Munari claimed and I could not agree more. My background in engineering helped me to understand the figures, the formulas, and the mathematical structure of the subject. That understanding has been essential so that any visual sign could be consistent with the data. Every visual sign a struggle in search for ‘graphical excellence that requires telling the truth about data’ and continuous criticism has had a capital importance. A logical, analogical, practical reasoning helped me to open my eyes when I got blind to my own mistakes. In the display of statistical information the focus on truth and precision, the focus on accessibility and clarity makes the journey difficult, turbulent, but absolutely vital, far away from the immobility of numbers placed in a table.