Virtual Water as a Solution to China's Domestic Water Challenges

April 19, 2015

Water scarcity is forcing China to look elsewhere for water resources. While importing piped water is a huge logistical challenge, growing virtual water imports through ‘virtual water trade’ and consuming water-intensive agricultural products from other countries is one way for China to meet its needs.


China's Virtual Water Imports (cubic kilometers) from Soy Bean Trade, 1986-2007


















Source: 'Evolution of the global virtual water trade network,' Carole Dalin, Megan Konar, Naota Hanasaki, Andrea Rinaldo and Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 109, no. 16, April, 2012


A recent paper entitled ‘Evolution of the global virtual water trade network’  by  Carole Dalin, Megan Konar, Naota Hanasaki, Andrea Rinaldo and Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe looks at how countries have responded to water scarcity by indirectly importing water in the form of agricultural products. 


Most strikingly, they show how China ramped up its raised its water imports by increasing its consumption of soy beans on global markets between 1986 and 2007. The countries most affected by this include Brazil, Argentina and, to a lesser but still significant extent, the United States.


According to the paper, China virtually imported 22 cubic kilometres of water from Brazil in 2007, compared with around three square kilometres in 1997. For Argentina, total virtual imports totalled approximately 20 cubic kilometres in 2007, compared with four cubic kilometres in 1997. For the United States, virtual water exports to China totalled 20 cubic kilometres in 2007, compared with nine cubic kilometres in 1997. 


The paper goes on to discuss how rising exports of virtual water to China is pushing producing countries to use water resources much more efficiently. Looking globally, this presents an argument that expansion of global trade can address scarcity in Asia and promote resource protection.


This is a moot point, particularly given both the widespread damage being caused to Brazil’s rain forests and the diversion of agricultural products away from domestic markets in poor countries. However, it demonstrates the ongoing impact of Asia’s rise on global markets and presents a solution, if not entirely a fair one, to the problem of water scarcity that we have previously discussed. 

Please reload