Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Analysis
  • Published:

The water footprint of different diets within European sub-national geographical entities


The water footprint concept has been recognized as being highly valuable for raising awareness of the large quantity of water resources required to produce the food we consume. We present, for three major European countries (the United Kingdom, France and Germany), a geographically detailed nationwide food-consumption-related water footprint, taking into account socio-economic factors of food consumption, for both existing and recommended diets (healthy diet with meat, healthy pescetarian diet and healthy vegetarian diet). Using socio-economic data, national food surveys and international food consumption and water footprint databases, we were able to refine national water footprint data to the smallest possible administrative boundaries within a country (reference period 2007–2011). We found geographical differences in water footprint values for existing diets as well as for the reduction in water footprints associated with a change to the recommended healthy diets. For all 43,786 analysed geographical entities, the water footprint decreases for a healthy diet containing meat (range 11–35%). Larger reductions are observed for the healthy pescetarian (range 33–55%) and healthy vegetarian (range 35–55%) diets. In other words, shifting to a healthy diet is not only good for human health, but also substantially reduces consumption of water resources, consistently for all geographical entities throughout the three countries. Our full results are available as a supplementary dataset. These data can be used at different governance levels in order to inform policies targeted to specific geographical entities.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Fig. 1: The total water footprint related to food consumption.
Fig. 2: The relationship between socio-economic factors and the WF of food product groups.
Fig. 3: Reduction in the total water footprint related to food consumption for a healthy diet containing meat (HEALTHY-MEAT).
Fig. 4: Reduction in the water footprint of specific food product group consumption, for a healthy diet containing meat.
Fig. 5: Reduction in the total water footprint for a healthy pescetarian diet or a healthy vegetarian diet.

Similar content being viewed by others

Data availability

The sources of the original data used for our analysis are listed in Methods. The data generated in this study are available in the Supplementary Information as an Excel file as well as a geodataset to link this Excel file. The geodatabase is based on original geographical boundaries, provided as open data5153. When using the data generated in our study, please refer to this paper.


  1. Vanham, D. Does the water footprint concept provide relevant information to address the water–food–energy–ecosystem nexus?. Ecosyst. Serv. 17, 298–307 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Hoekstra, A. Y. & Wiedmann, T. O. Humanity’s unsustainable environmental footprint. Science 344, 1114–1117 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Steffen, W. et al. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science 347, (2015).

  4. Falkenmark, M. Meeting water requirements of an expanding world population. Philos. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B, Biol. Sci. 352, 929–936 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Kummu, M. et al. The world’s road to water scarcity: shortage and stress in the 20th century and pathways towards sustainability. Sci. Rep. 6, 38495 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Gerten, al. Towards a revised planetary boundary for consumptive freshwater use: role of environmental flow requirements. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustain. 5, 551–558 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T. & Puma, M. J. Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. Nature 543, 700 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Aldaya, M. M. Eating ourselves dry. Nature 543, 633 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Ripple, W. al. World scientists’ warning to humanity: a second notice. Bioscience 67, 1026–1028 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hoekstra, A. Y., & Mekonnen, M. M. The water footprint of humanity. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci., USA 109, 3232–3237 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Rockström, J. et al. Future water availability for global food production: the potential of green water for increasing resilience to global change. Water Resour. Res. 45, W00A12 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Liu, J. & Savenije, H. H. G. Food consumption patterns and their effect on water requirement in China. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 12, 887–898 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Vanham, D. The water footprint of Austria for different diets. Water Sci. Technol. 67, 824–830 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Vanham, D., Gawlik, B. M., & Bidoglio, G. Food consumption and related water resources in Nordic cities. Ecol. Indic. 74, 119–129 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Vanham, D., Gawlik, B. M. & Bidoglio, G. Cities as hotspots of indirect water consumption: the case study of Hong Kong. J. Hydrol. (2018).

  16. De Irala-Estévez, J. et al. A systematic review of socio-economic differences in food habits in Europe: consumption of fruit and vegetables. Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 54, 706 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Bénetier, C. et al. Étude Individuelle Nationale des Consommations Alimentaires 2 (INCA 2) (2006–2007) (AFSSA – Agence Française de Sécurité Sanitaire des Aliments, Maisons-Alforts, 2009).

  18. Heuer, T., Krems, C., Moon, K., Brombach, C., & Hoffmann, I. Food consumption of adults in Germany: results of the German National Nutrition Survey II based on diet history interviews. Br. J. Nutr. 113, 1603–1614 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Public Health England. National Diet and Nutrition Survey – Results from Years 1, 2, 3 and 4 (combined) of the Rolling Programme (2008/2009 –2011/2012) (London, UK, 2014).

  20. Vanham, D., & Bidoglio, G. A review on the indicator water footprint for the EU28. Ecol. Ind. 26, 61–75 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 15, 1577–1600 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Clarys, P. et al. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients 6, 1318 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Vanham, al. Water consumption related to different diets in Mediterranean cities. Sci. Total Environ. 573, 96–105 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  24. Gilsing, A. M. J. et al. Vegetarianism, low meat consumption and the risk of colorectal cancer in a population based cohort study. Sci. Rep. 5, 13484 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Gawlik, B. M. et al. Urban Water Atlas for Europe (European Commission, Publication Office of the European Union, 2017).

  26. UfM. Press release: UfM Ministers agree on new framework for an enhanced regional cooperation on Water in the Mediterranean (2017).

  27. Gawlik, B. M., Głowacka, N., Feldman, D. L., & Elelman, R. The scientist, the politician, the artist and the citizen: how water united them. Environ. Sci. Eur. 30, 12 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  28. Hoekstra, A. Y., Chapagain, A. K., Aldaya, M. M. & Mekonnen, M. M. The Water Footprint Assessment Manual: Setting the Global Standard (Earthscan, London, 2011).

  29. OECD. Environmental Indicators—Development, Measurement and Use. Report (Organisation of Economic Co-Operation and Development, Paris, 2003).

  30. Vanham, D. et al. Physical water scarcity metrics for monitoring progress towards SDG target 6.4: an evaluation of indicator 6.4.2 ‘Level of water stress’. Sci. Total Environ. 613–614, 218–232 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Hoekstra, A. Y., & Mekonnen, M. M. Imported water risk: the case of the UK. Environ. Res. Lett. 11, 055002 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  32. Hess, T., Andersson, U., Mena, C. & Williams, A. The impact of healthier dietary scenarios on the global blue water scarcity footprint of food consumption in the UK. Food Policy 50, 1–10 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Rushforth, R. R. & Ruddell, B. L. The vulnerability and resilience of a city’s water footprint: the case of Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. Water Resour. Res. 52, 2698–2714 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Vanham, D., Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. The water footprint of the EU for different diets. Ecol. Indic. 32, 1–8 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Mekonnen, M. M. & Hoekstra, A. Y. Four billion people facing severe water scarcity. Sci. Adv. 2, (2016).

  36. Marston, L. & Konar, M. Drought impacts to water footprints and virtual water transfers of the Central Valley of California. Water Resour. Res. 53, 5756–5773 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. NCD-RisC. Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: a pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19.2 million participants. Lancet 387, 1377–1396 (2016).

  38. Abarca-Gómez, L. et al. Worldwide trends in body-mass index, underweight, overweight, and obesity from 1975 to 2016: a pooled analysis of 2416 population-based measurement studies in 128·9 million children, adolescents, and adults. Lancet 390, 2627–2642 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Garnett, T., Mathewson, S., Angelides, P. & Borthwick, F. Policies And Actions to Shift Eating Patterns: What Works? (Food Climate Research Network, Chatham House, 2015).

  40. Max Rubner-Institut. Scientific Use File of the German National Nutrition Survey II (NVS II). CD-ROM (Karlsruhe Germany, 2009).

  41. Lumley, T. Analysis of complex survey samples. J. Stat. Softw. 9, 1–19 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Tressou, J. et al. Fatty acid dietary intake in the general French population: are the French agency for food, environmental and occupational health & safety (ANSES) national recommendations met?. Br. J. Nutr. 116, 1966–1973 (2016).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  43. Mekonnen, M. & Hoekstra, A. A global assessment of the water footprint of farm animal products. Ecosystems 15, 401–415 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. Pahlow, M., van Oel, P. R., Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. Increasing pressure on freshwater resources due to terrestrial feed ingredients for aquaculture production. Sci. Total Environ. 536, 847–857 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. Vanham, D., Bouraoui, F., Leip, A., Grizzetti, B., & Bidoglio, G. Lost water and nitrogen resources due to EU consumer food waste. Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 084008 (2015).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. Oberritter, H., Schäbethal, K., von Ruesten, A., & Boeing, H. The DGE nutrition circle—presentation and basis of the food-related recommendations from the German nutrition society (DGE). Ernaehrungs Umschau Int. 2, 24–29 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  47. Alexy, U., Clausen, K. & Kersting, M. Die ernährung gesunder kinder und jugendlicher nach dem konzept der optimierten mischkost. Ernährungs Umschau 3, 168–177 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  48. ANSES. La santé vient en mangeant – le guide alimentaire pour tous (Agence Francaise de sécurité sanitaire des aliments, Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, 2002).

  49. Public Health England. The Eatwell Guide - Helping you Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet (2016).

  50. Gastner, M. T. & Newman, M. E. J. Diffusion-based method for producing density-equalizing maps. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci., USA 101, 7499–7504 (2004).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  51. Admin Express, L’OpenData France (2018).

  52. Census boundary data, UK Data Service (2018).

  53. Service Centre of the German Federal Government for Geo-Information and Geodesy (2018).

Download references


The authors thank the Max Rubner-Institut for the provision of the German National Nutrition Survey II data.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



D.V., S.C., B.M.G. and G.B. designed the research. S.C. carried out the statistical analyses of the nutrition surveys. D.V. performed all other analyses. D.V. wrote the paper with help from S.C. D.V. created all the graphical material.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Davy Vanham.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1-46, Supplementary Tables 1-12, Supplementary References 1–20

Supplementary Dataset 1

Supplementary Dataset 1

Supplementary Dataset 2

Supplementary Dataset 2

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Vanham, D., Comero, S., Gawlik, B.M. et al. The water footprint of different diets within European sub-national geographical entities. Nat Sustain 1, 518–525 (2018).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing Anthropocene

Sign up for the Nature Briefing: Anthropocene newsletter — what matters in anthropocene research, free to your inbox weekly.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing: Anthropocene