💧Virtual water – Introduction

Water is one of the most valuable resources at present. Sources of water are not only fast depleting due to climate change but are also becoming polluted. Hence, not fit for consumption. Uses of water are forever increasing with increasing population.

It has become pertinent to save, recycle, and reduce available sources of water. However, we need to understand the water footprint and virtual water to mitigate the water crisis.

Virtual water means the total volume of water used to produce consumer products.

Virtual water is the total volume of water used to produce agricultural or industrial products or services. It is called virtual because the finished product does not have water that has been used to make it.

For example, in producing a pair of shoes, virtual water used is the quantity of water used in each step to make a pair of shoes, including packing and shipping. Yet the finished pair of shoes does not have water it consumed in the production process.

Virtual water is hidden water in a product: every product we use or services we avail to have virtual water in it. Virtual water is an indirect use of water instead of direct use like drinking, washing, cooking, bathing, etc.

💧Concept of virtual water trade

Tony Allan first introduced the idea of virtual water trade. According to him, virtual water means a hidden flow of water if the commodity moves from one place to another. For example, a 1340 cubic meter of water is used to produce one metric ton of wheat.

When this wheat is traded, it moves from one place to another along with virtual water. A country that imported wheat saved that much of water available in its country. An importing country can now use such saved water for other purposes.

While the country exporting has used up that much water. That used water is currently not available to the exporting country, and it cannot use it for other purposes. This hits a country hard, mainly if it is a water-deficient country.

Therefore, when we export a product, we are shipping our water supply too. Nations exports and imports billions of products. Trade-in agricultural products account for 80% of international virtual water.

For example, when Argentina is exporting beef, it is exporting virtual water along with it. Similarly, when India is exporting rice, it is exporting virtual water with it. In exporting rice, India is losing its water resource in massive amounts, as rice is a water-intensive crop.

China, too has been exporting water as China has become one of the largest exporters of consumer goods. Such is the consumption of water that many of its rivers dry up before reaching the sea.

A notable example is the Yellow River, which dries up before reaching the sea.

💧Importance of virtual water

We are unaware of the quantity of water that we consume. Since the finished product that we use does not have any traces of water, we do not realize that we are drinking water, so it is very easy to over-consume.

Without this understanding, it has become difficult to reduce the water footprint. It is essential to reduce the water footprint because of depleting freshwater. We have seen that many countries, even those in high water zones, are increasingly facing water crises. Cape Town in South Africa has already exhausted its water resources.

Most states and communities are facing issues of water scarcity, sustainability, sanitation, and accessibility.

Nations work towards securing food, energy, water, and other essential things necessary for improving the living condition of its citizens. In the modern world, most countries rely on export and import of goods and services.

States can opt to produce products and services within their border, but this would put a significant burden on its resources. A country may import and export some of its goods and services. This way, it would be able to maintain its resources, particularly water resources, in a sustainable manner.

Water scarce countries can import virtual water through importing water-intensive products. It would relieve pressure on domestic water resources. This is true for Mediterranean countries, the Middle East, and Mexico as these countries have water scarcity. Major exporters of virtual water are the USA, China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, France, etc. Major importers of virtual water are Japan, Germany, the UK, the USA, China, North Africa, the Middle East, etc.

Countries, thus, trade virtual water. Europe imports virtual water more than its export, though it is not for water scarcity. It allows them to save their indigenous water resources, land availability, and land usage.

💧Saving virtual water

Saving of water in any way is essential because of the looming water crisis. Countries can save water by importing products that are water-intensive for them to produce. This way, it would keep water at the global level if the products move from high water productive regions to low water fertile region.

If an importing country is to produce that product, it would require to use its already stressed water supply to create that particular product. It also has to divert water from other uses.

However, if it imports that same product from a country which has a rich source of water and can produce it without overstressing its water resource, that importing country would have saved its actual water.

For example, India produces rice in places where rainwater is ample and exports it to Mexico, where water availability is a little scarce. Mexico would have saved its actual water that it would have to use in the production of rice. The water collected by it can be used in other spheres.

This is the virtual water trade. It is essential to keep a check-in over the consumption of already stressed water resources. It also helps in reducing the water footprint.

Virtual water can be saved by consuming more vegetables than animal products.

The dairy and meat industries require more water for their production than vegetables, fruits, and grains.


Mike Brown has done Masters in Hydrology and Water Management. He loves coffee and likes to lecture people on climate change. He plays PUBG when he is not working.

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