(Emma Askew, 2019)

Globally there is a recognised water crisis, resulting in the crucial need to use water more efficiently as it is essential to human life.

With more than half of the global population to face water-based vulnerability by 2050, recent studies have highlighted the importance to understand the link between embodied water in the global trade of agricultural, food and industrial products and the impacts to local water cycles. It is acknowledged that a significant amount of water is traded through the invisible form of consumer goods. This form of embodied water has been termed ‘virtual water’ since the 1990s, defining the volume of water that is required to produce a product. Although, quantitative research on embodied water is still underdeveloped and there are controversial studies around the opportunities and issues created by virtual water trade in both environmental and socioeconomic perspectives.

Studies on virtual water have provided contemporary insights into global water issues, which exposes its critical role in global water use with exports making up one-fifth of the global water footprint between 1996-2005. There is the general consensus that the largest use of water is within the food production trade, in products such as cereals/grains and meats. With this, embodied water in the agricultural sector of global trade is significant as irrigation is a dominating freshwater use accounting for 70% of the global supply. This is predicted to increase with rises in population doubling food demands by 2025.

The damages and benefits from the virtual water trade of agricultural products (such as cotton, soya bean and flower production) are explored below:


The impacts can be highly destructive causing declines in water availability and quality, shown through the Aral Sea crisis. The extensive trade in embodied water can be shown to have a serious impact in degrading the local water cycles of exporting countries by decreasing and polluting surface water supplies. This is shown through Uzbekistan, central Asia, where freshwater was diverted from the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers for the vast use of irrigation for cotton production; reducing the annual water flow into the Aral Sea by 85%. From being the fourth largest inland lake in the world, the surface area of the Aral Sea was severely depleted from 68,000km2 to 37,000km2 by 1989 as 1kg of cotton requires a large 20,000 litres of water to be produced. These impacts are significant, acting as one of the most serious environmental tragedies, in which the large blue water (surface and groundwater) withdrawals resulted in pushing the water cycle out of balance with evaporation exceeding recharge rates. This desiccation caused further consequences of salinization, and the excessive use of pesticides caused disruption to the aquatic ecosystem by eutrophication. As a result, the extremity of devastation caused the restoration of the Sea to be redeemed as impossible. Is it inevitable that the virtual water trade within agricultural products causes local water cycle decline, exposing it is not sustainable in the long-term?


Yet, there are additional benefits made to local water cycles through virtual water ‘savings’ and how management amongst the socioeconomic opportunities could reduce the devastation, shown through examples in China, Kenya, Algeria and the USA. An emerging finding through research suggests that trade can increase water use efficiency, as the main flow of trade transfers water resources from a more to a less productive area. For example, in Texas, despite the water losses from exporting, there has been increased efforts to prevent additional aquifer abstractions through using virtual water trade as an opportunity to import water-intensive feedstock for the farmed livestock. This is argued an optimum production decision by ‘saving’ the water that would have been used if the feedstock was produced locally. In Addition, in China from 1997-2001, the net national water ‘saving’ from the increased use of imports was 56 Gm /yr, with significant green (rainwater) and blue water ‘savings’ through imported soybean from the rain-fed regions of Brazil. At a more ocal scale, in Inner Mongolia, these imports reduced the total area of local irrigation, ‘saving’ large quantities of blue water due to a previous 67% of the irrigation having relied on groundwater. Could the virtual water trade relieve pressures on local water cycles and prevent risks of land desertification?

Additionally, there are arguments that the virtual water trade can also be shown to create vital socioeconomic opportunities, whilst ensuring the maintenance of local water cycles. For example, in Kenya, East Africa, the local utilisation of Lake Naivasha has provided an exceling flower-cut industry that has advanced levels of employment and infrastructure and has become a vital part of Kenya’s economy as the third most important foreign exchange earner. With this, there has been an encouraged awareness across the flower farms to reduce the water footprint through business associations with Fairtrade and local conservation projects conducted by NGOs, such as the Kenyan Flower Council. This demonstrates an increase in effort to minimise the negative impacts to local water cycles caused through production, which is also found to be an increasingly common aim in larger-scale corporations, such as Coca-Cola. Could the environmental damage be lessened with increased business and local community management?


Alternatively, it could be criticised that despite management efforts, the socioeconomic benefits will come at a large environmental cost as ultimately virtual water trade is not environmentally driven. As well as the quantified water ‘savings’ may construct a deceptive positive impact to local water cycles, overlooking the significance of the damage caused. For example, the Soviet policy can be argued the cause of the Aral Sea crisis from putting “man over nature”, where the permanent water cycle devastation came as a result of favouring socioeconomic opportunity in the cotton trade. Indeed, this could suggest that the damage to local water cycles cannot always be managed as some impacts are irreversible; suggesting the only way to reduce the impacts are to prevent them in the first place, questioning the potential for virtual water trade to be an environmentally sustainable process. Additionally, although Kenya benefited socioeconomically, it can be argued that the flower-cut industry is still not environmentally sustainable due to high levels of pollution and the persistent water losses from abstraction putting the future of the lake at high risk.

This demonstrates the fundamental issue that virtual water is economically invisible and politically silent with the underlying limitation that political, social and economic factors outweigh environmental considerations. Are the irreversible environmental impacts unavoidable and to an extent unmanageable? Without a change in virtual water focus could the damage inevitably worsen?


The impact of global trade in embodied water on local water cycles is largely destructive, and the subsequent depletion and pollution has greater significance than the beneficial impacts from water ‘savings’. With more risk than opportunity, the socioeconomic drive of virtual water limits the efficiency of reducing damage, yet virtual water trade cannot simply be minimised as water undoubtedly plays a vital role in the global economy. To forward this, it is vital for virtual water trade analysis and decisions to address the local devastation made to water cycles of exporting countries to enforce sufficient local management, which in turn will ensure efficient long-term water use, the sustainability of the potential opportunities and ‘savings’ and manage wider global water issues.