Articles | Volume 17, issue 3
Research article
 | Highlight paper
19 Mar 2013
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 19 Mar 2013

Local and global perspectives on the virtual water trade

S. Tamea, P. Allamano, J. A. Carr, P. Claps, F. Laio, and L. Ridolfi

Abstract. Recent studies on fluxes of virtual water are showing how the global food and goods trade interconnects the water resources of different and distant countries, conditioning the local water balances. This paper presents and discusses the assessment of virtual water fluxes between a single country and its network of trading partners, delineating a country's virtual water budget in space and time (years 1986–2010). The fluxes between the country under study and its importing/exporting partners are visualized with a geographical representation shaping the trade network as a virtual river/delta. Time variations of exchanged fluxes are quantified to show possible trends in the virtual water balance, while characterizing the time evolution of the trade network and its composition in terms of product categories (plant-based, animal-based, luxury food, and non-edible). The average distance traveled by virtual water to arrive to the place of consumption is also introduced as a new measure for the analysis of globalization of the virtual water trade.

Using Italy as an example, we find that food trade has a steadily growing importance compared to domestic production, with a major component represented by plant-based products, and luxury products taking an increasingly larger share (26% in 2010). In 2010 Italy had an average net import of 55 km3 of virtual water (38 km3 in 1986), a value which poses the country among the top net importers in the world. On average each cubic meter of virtual water travels nearly 4000 km before entering Italy, while export goes to relatively closer countries (average distance: 2600 km), with increasing trends in time which are almost unique among the world countries. Analyses proposed for Italy are replicated for 10 other world countries, triggering similar investigations on different socio-economic actualities.