Articles | Volume 10, issue 3
30 Jun 2006
30 Jun 2006

Water saving through international trade of agricultural products

A. K. Chapagain, A. Y. Hoekstra, and H. H. G. Savenije

Abstract. Many nations save domestic water resources by importing water-intensive products and exporting commodities that are less water intensive. National water saving through the import of a product can imply saving water at a global level if the flow is from sites with high to sites with low water productivity. The paper analyses the consequences of international virtual water flows on the global and national water budgets. The assessment shows that the total amount of water that would have been required in the importing countries if all imported agricultural products would have been produced domestically is 1605 Gm3/yr. These products are however being produced with only 1253 Gm3/yr in the exporting countries, saving global water resources by 352 Gm3/yr. This saving is 28 per cent of the international virtual water flows related to the trade of agricultural products and 6 per cent of the global water use in agriculture. National policy makers are however not interested in global water savings but in the status of national water resources. Egypt imports wheat and in doing so saves 3.6 Gm3/yr of its national water resources. Water use for producing export commodities can be beneficial, as for instance in Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana and Brazil, where the use of green water resources (mainly through rain-fed agriculture) for the production of stimulant crops for export has a positive economic impact on the national economy. However, export of 28 Gm3/yr of national water from Thailand related to rice export is at the cost of additional pressure on its blue water resources. Importing a product which has a relatively high ratio of green to blue virtual water content saves global blue water resources that generally have a higher opportunity cost than green water.