Defining freshwater as a natural resource: a framework linking water use to the area of protection natural resources

Publication Type:
Journal Article
International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 2019, 24 (5), pp. 960 - 974
Issue Date:
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© 2019, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature. Purpose: While many examples have shown unsustainable use of freshwater resources, existing LCIA methods for water use do not comprehensively address impacts to natural resources for future generations. This framework aims to (1) define freshwater resource as an item to protect within the Area of Protection (AoP) natural resources, (2) identify relevant impact pathways affecting freshwater resources, and (3) outline methodological choices for impact characterization model development. Methods: Considering the current scope of the AoP natural resources, the complex nature of freshwater resources and its important dimensions to safeguard safe future supply, a definition of freshwater resource is proposed, including water quality aspects. In order to clearly define what is to be protected, the freshwater resource is put in perspective through the lens of the three main safeguard subjects defined by Dewulf et al. (2015). In addition, an extensive literature review identifies a wide range of possible impact pathways to freshwater resources, establishing the link between different inventory elementary flows (water consumption, emissions, and land use) and their potential to cause long-term freshwater depletion or degradation. Results and discussion: Freshwater as a resource has a particular status in LCA resource assessment. First, it exists in the form of three types of resources: flow, fund, or stock. Then, in addition to being a resource for human economic activities (e.g., hydropower), it is above all a non-substitutable support for life that can be affected by both consumption (source function) and pollution (sink function). Therefore, both types of elementary flows (water consumption and emissions) should be linked to a damage indicator for freshwater as a resource. Land use is also identified as a potential stressor to freshwater resources by altering runoff, infiltration, and erosion processes as well as evapotranspiration. It is suggested to use the concept of recovery period to operationalize this framework: when the recovery period lasts longer than a given period of time, impacts are considered to be irreversible and fall into the concern of freshwater resources protection (i.e., affecting future generations), while short-term impacts effect the AoP ecosystem quality and human health directly. It is shown that it is relevant to include this concept in the impact assessment stage in order to discriminate the long-term from the short-term impacts, as some dynamic fate models already do. Conclusions: This framework provides a solid basis for the consistent development of future LCIA methods for freshwater resources, thereby capturing the potential long-term impacts that could warn decision makers about potential safe water supply issues in the future.
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