‘Virtual Water’ Trade and Geopolitics From Unconscious Behavior to Conscious Decisions

Released from Kyoto, Japan

Water-scarce countries are using the new concept of “virtual water” — the amount of water needed to create goods — to determine their agricultural and industrial production strategies.

“When you consume one kilo of grain, you are in effect also consuming the one thousand liters of water needed to grow that grain, when you consume one kilo of beef, you are consuming the 13,000 liters of water needed to produce that amount of meat, and this is the hidden or ‘virtual’ water,” says Daniel Zimmer, Director of the World Water Council and a speaker at the Forum’s session on virtual water: Virtual Water Trade and Geopolitics on Monday, March 17th. “It is this unconscious behavior that causes humans to consume so much water.”

The contrast in water use can be seen between continents. In Asia, people consume an average of 1,400 liters of ‘virtual water’ per day, whereas in Europe and North America, people consume about 4,000 liters of ‘virtual water’ per day. Some 70 percent of all water utilized by humans goes into food production.

The magnitude of this variation demonstrates that diet is very important for water consumption,” says Daniel Zimmer. “If the entire world consumed as much virtual water as do people in North America, the world would need 75 percent more water than it currently uses for food production.”

No practical way will probably ever exist to trade large enough volumes of water like other products, simply because its weight and volume make this prohibitively expensive. However, a country that opts to be a net importer of ‘virtual water,’ as opposed to real water, can relieve pressure on its own water resources.”

“We have made the first calculations of virtual water trade, which will be debated during the Forum,” says Arjen Hoekstra, Ph.D., of the International Institute for Infrastructural Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering (IHE). “These calculations show that nearly 20 percent of the water that is consumed by agriculture is traded to other countries in the form of the food and other products that result. This is quite a big figure, since five trillion cubic meters of water per year is used for agriculture, and out of that one trillion is involved in trade between countries.”

Among the biggest net exporter countries of ‘virtual water’ are the United States, Canada, Thailand, Argentina, India, Vietnam, France and Brazil.

“The United States is such a major exporter of virtual water because of its agricultural exports,” says Daniel Zimmer. “In fact, the annual virtual water volume exported by the U.S. is four times the entire annual water use for everything of Egypt.”

Some of the largest net import countries of ‘virtual water’ are Sri Lanka, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, China, Spain, Egypt, Germany and Italy.

“Olive oil is an excellent product that can be produced in arid climates,” says Daniel Renault of the Food and Agriculture Organization. High quality olive oil brings in a great deal of foreign exchange that can be used for food purchases. Tunisia is an example of a country that has successfully resorted to producing olive oil as a virtual water export.”

“Unconsciously, through food imports, many water-scarce countries have already eased tensions over their water problems, so that ‘virtual water’ imports are already playing a role,” says William J. Cosgrove, Vice President of the World Water Council. “Now, virtual water’ trade is becoming more of a conscious decision by countries.”

The Forum session will also consider the difference between “food security” and food sovereignty.” That is, many countries could resort to ‘virtual water’ trade in order to achieve a sufficient food supply for their people, but many governments do not want or simply cannot afford to become dependent on global trade.

“This is crucial for countries like India and China,” says Daniel Zimmer. “They feel that because they have such large populations, the world market would not be able to supply their food demands in any crisis and so as much as possible, they want to take care of their own food needs.”

“We advocate making the concept of virtual water more and more conscious,” says Mr. Cosgrove. “Governments should start thinking in a different way; at the regional level, we should begin to think how they could share the benefits of water, instead of sharing the water.”

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