Changing the story of water: A tribute to Arjen Hoekstra

Nov 29, 2019 · 3 min read

Stuart Orr, Alexis Morgan and Dave Tickner from WWF’s Freshwater Practice pay tribute to the work of Professor Arjen Hoekstra, a true innovator in water science, who died suddenly last week.

Arjen Hoekstra was a pioneer. The godfather of water footprinting, his work changed the way we view our most precious natural resource.

Standing on the shoulders of Tony Allan, another giant of the academic world who devised the concept of virtual water, Arjen published his first research on water footprints in 2003. This breakthrough came at a time when there was a desperate need to tell the real story of water.

In the early 2000s, we knew that the way people and businesses around the world use water to produce and consume crops and goods had a massive impact on the health of freshwater habitats and biodiversity, and on local communities. But we lacked robust science and a compelling way of communicating this.

At WWF, we saw Arjen’s work and realised that, with its blend of conceptual simplicity and scientific sophistication, it was the tool we had been looking for.

We arranged to meet Arjen and his then PhD student, Ashok Chapagain, to discuss how the water footprint concept could open doors to influencing businesses and policy makers. These early discussions were sometimes difficult; our visions of how to use water footprinting differed.

But we all stuck at it and we found common ground. WWF was proud to support Arjen in establishing the Water Footprint Network, an alliance of organisations that were all keen to develop water footprinting and to help improve management of the world’s rivers and aquifers.

Ashok later joined WWF and was instrumental in our application of Arjen’s ideas, initially through research on the UK’s water footprint, published in 2008. This research made the front page of national newspapers, proof that water footprint was a powerful communication tool.

Later we worked with companies such as SABMiller (now ABInBev) to understand the water footprints of their products. We also assessed agricultural production around Lake Naivasha, Kenya, linking water footprint assessment with water resource planning and business risk. From these exploratory steps, WWF’s Water Stewardship Programme evolved.

A decade on, that Programme has bloomed. WWF now has dozens of staff across the globe implementing stewardship projects and is influencing the water-related investments of major companies and financial institutions. All this effort has its roots in Arjen’s initial insights.

Arjen was not only a great thinker; he was a friend and fellow advocate whose company we enjoyed. He was always up for a debate. He argued his case strongly, sometimes stubbornly, but would do so with a smile on his face. And he had real energy and determination — valuable qualities in these challenging times.

The story of water should never be restricted to the liquid that comes from our taps. It is the story of our food, our clothing, our energy and all the stuff we buy and use every day. Water flows through our lives in myriad ways. Arjen helped us to tell that story.

Arjen’s great innovation shaped our thinking more than he realised. His death has come as huge shock. We will miss him, but we’re grateful for his legacy.

© Frederico Viana