Human health

Water stress

Water for food is one of the main global issues and irrigation is a limiting factor in agricultural production. Food supply is a vital human need and insufficient nutrition accounts for ~3% of overall global health impacts (WHO 2014) and further contributes to impacts form other diseases. While many factors contribute to this issue, reduced water availability caused by water consumption leads to reduced availability for food production and consequent yield losses.


Cause-effect pathway


The impact model is addressing lack of water for agricultural food production and consequent effects on the Area of protection ‘Human Health ’ caused by water consumption.





Modeling approach


Two different methods are available: (1) marginal CFs, which are typically used in LCA to address impacts of additional water consumption (marginal change in water consumption rate) and (2) average CFs, which are used to assess total impacts of water consumption within a region and to characterize the impact of an activity proportionally to the impact of total water consumption.



Value choices

  • A number of choices have been made for the calculation of the characterization factors, namely:

  • Time Horizon: The time horizon is infinite, assuming steady-state conditions. The effect of water consumption is described through competition for a renewable resource on annual level

  • The choice of discounting: no discounting to future effects is applied

  • Excluded impact pathways:

    • potential human health effects due to lack of water for drinking water purpose and hygiene are excluded due to low level of evidence of a cause-effect relation to water consumptio

    • effect of decreased food production on international markets and consequent effects in other countries through increased prices in globalized markets are excluded due to low level of robustness and moderate level of evidence.


Spatial variability


The method was applied to >11'000 watersheds with varying sizes, with global coverage. Country-average characterisation factors are available too. A global average is not considered meaningful but provided for background processes.



Characterisation factors


The equation for calculating the characterisation factor (CF) is:


where CFMN,i [DALY/m3consumed] is the expected specific damage per unit of water consumed in watershed i (as specified in the LCI-phase), WDFi is the water deprivation factor [m3/m3], EFi is the effect factor [cases·yr/m3], WSIi is the water stress index[-], WU%A,i is the share of water used in agriculture[-], HDFi is the human development factor [-], WRMN is the minimum water requirements for personal food provision [m3/(cases·yr)] and DFMN the damage factor [DALY/(yr·case)].







Pfister S, Koehler A, Hellweg S. 2009. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Freshwater Consumption in LCA. Environmental Science & Technology 43, 4098-4104 doi:10.1021/es802423e

Pfister S, Hellweg S. 2011. Surface water use – human health impacts. Report of the LC-IMPACT project (EC: FP7).  

Pfister S, Bayer P. 2014. Monthly water stress: spatially and temporally explicit consumptive water footprint of global crop production. Journal of Cleaner Production 73, 52-62.