Virtual water trade: an assessment of water use efficiency in the international food trade
Abstract. Amid an increasing water scarcity in many parts of the world, virtual water trade as both a policy instrument and practical means to balance the local, national and global water budget has received much attention in recent years. Building upon the knowledge of virtual water accounting in the literature, this study assesses the efficiency of water use embodied in the international food trade from the perspectives of exporting and importing countries and at the global and country levels. The investigation reveals that the virtual water flows primarily from countries of high crop water productivity to countries of low crop water productivity, generating a global saving in water use. Meanwhile, the total virtual water trade is dominated by green virtual water, which constitutes a low opportunity cost of water use as opposed to blue virtual water. A sensitivity analysis, however, suggests high uncertainties in the virtual water accounting and the estimation of the scale of water saving. The study also raises awareness of the limited effect of water scarcity on the global virtual water trade and the negative implications of the global water saving for the water use efficiency and food security in importing countries and the environment in exporting countries. The analysis shows the complexity in evaluating the efficiency gains in the international virtual water trade. The findings of the study, nevertheless, call for a greater emphasis on rainfed agriculture to improve the global food security and environmental sustainability.