Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (Apr 2014)

Recent evolution of China's virtual water trade: analysis of selected crops and considerations for policy

  • J. Shi,
  • J. Liu,
  • L. Pinter

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 18, no. 4
pp. 1349 – 1357


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China has dramatically increased its virtual water import over recent years. Many studies have focused on the quantity of traded virtual water, but very few go into analysing geographic distribution and the properties of China's virtual water trade network. This paper provides a calculation and analysis of the crop-related virtual water trade network of China based on 27 major primary crops between 1986 and 2009. The results show that China is a net importer of virtual water from water-abundant areas of North America and South America, and a net virtual water exporter to water-stressed areas of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Virtual water import is far larger than virtual water export, and in both import and export a small number of trade partners control the supply chain. Grain crops are the major contributors to virtual water trade, and among grain crops, soybeans, mostly imported from the US, Brazil and Argentina, are the most significant. In order to mitigate water scarcity and secure the food supply, virtual water should actively be incorporated into national water management strategies. And the sources of virtual water import need to be further diversified to reduce supply chain risks and increase resilience.