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Savings and losses of global water resources in food‐related virtual water trade

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International food trade entails virtual water flows across trading partners. It has been proposed to attenuate regional water scarcity by importing water‐intensive commodities from water‐abundant regions. In addition to alleviating water scarcity in virtual water importing countries, existing studies have reported that food trade also generates global water savings. However, little is known how these global water savings may alleviate water scarcity, which is more relevant to the sustainable use of water resources than only assessing the savings. In this paper, we conducted a comprehensive review on studies of water savings and losses associated with food trade on different spatial scales. We found that the concept of global water savings is built on the disparities in water productivity across countries, whereas the regional water savings measure the inflows of virtual water trade. The significance of water savings is dimmed by the fact that the savings are often not driven by water scarcity. Meanwhile, lacking policy relevance impairs the usefulness of water saving accounting. Future studies should link water savings to alleviating water scarcity at various levels. The water saving accounting needs to go to finer scale, for example, to subnational and river basin scales, to support real water resource management. In the meantime, interdisciplinary efforts are necessary to enhance the water savings as a holistic measure for addressing water scarcity on regional and global scales.

This article is categorized under:

  • Engineering Water > Planning Water
  • Human Water > Value of Water
  • Science of Water > Water Quality
Illustration of global and regional water savings associated with wheat exporting from France to Morocco for the period of 1996–2005. Data are derived from Mekonnen and Hoekstra (). VWCM and VWCF are virtual water contents for producing wheat in Morocco and France, respectively; T is trade volume of wheat from France to Morocco; GWSM,F is global water savings due to wheat trade from France to Morocco; RWSM and RWSF are regional water savings of Morocco and France, respectively
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Uncertainties of virtual water content (VWC, m3/ton), including blue and green water, of maize associated with selection of different potential evapotranspiration (ET) methods in different climate zones. Graph is modified from the studied by Liu, Yang, Folberth, et al. (), in where also the potential ET methods and climate zones are defined
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Engineering Water > Planning Water
Science of Water > Water Quality
Human Water > Value of Water

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