Articles | Volume 15, issue 5
Research article
27 May 2011
Research article |  | 27 May 2011

Internal and external green-blue agricultural water footprints of nations, and related water and land savings through trade

M. Fader, D. Gerten, M. Thammer, J. Heinke, H. Lotze-Campen, W. Lucht, and W. Cramer

Abstract. The need to increase food production for a growing world population makes an assessment of global agricultural water productivities and virtual water flows important. Using the hydrology and agro-biosphere model LPJmL, we quantify at 0.5° resolution the amount of blue and green water (irrigation and precipitation water) needed to produce one unit of crop yield, for 11 of the world's major crop types. Based on these, we also quantify the agricultural water footprints (WFP) of all countries, for the period 1998–2002, distinguishing internal and external WFP (virtual water imported from other countries) and their blue and green components, respectively. Moreover, we calculate water savings and losses, and for the first time also land savings and losses, through international trade with these products. The consistent separation of blue and green water flows and footprints shows that green water globally dominates both the internal and external WFP (84 % of the global WFP and 94 % of the external WFP rely on green water). While no country ranks among the top ten with respect to all water footprints calculated here, Pakistan and Iran demonstrate high absolute and per capita blue WFP, and the US and India demonstrate high absolute green and blue WFPs. The external WFPs are relatively small (6 % of the total global blue WFP, 16 % of the total global green WFP). Nevertheless, current trade of the products considered here saves significant water volumes and land areas (~263 km3 and ~41 Mha, respectively, equivalent to 5 % of the sowing area of the considered crops and 3.5 % of the annual precipitation on this area). Relating the proportions of external to internal blue/green WFP to the per capita WFPs allows recognizing that only a few countries consume more water from abroad than from their own territory and have at the same time above-average WFPs. Thus, countries with high per capita water consumption affect mainly the water availability in their own country. Finally, this study finds that flows/savings of both virtual water and virtual land need to be analysed together, since they are intrinsically related.