What are virtual water exports?
THE UNITED NATIONS DEFINITION
The United Nations ‘2003 International Year of Freshwater’ website states, “The concept of virtual water emerged in the early 1990s and was first defined by Professor J.A. Allan as the water embedded in commodities. Producing goods and services requires water; the water used to produce agricultural or industrial products is called the virtual water of the product.” This can be read at http://www.wateryear2003.org/en/ev.phpURL_ID=5868&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html. Professor Allan was awarded the Stockholm Water Prize, http://oneworld.net/article/view/159238.
THE UN SAYS CANADA IS A MAJOR EXPORTER OF VIRTUAL WATER
“According to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, Canada and the United States are the world’s biggest virtual water exporters.”
http://www.cwn-rce.ca/index.php?fa=Media.Feature-Schreier A list of the major exporters of virtual water (USA, Canada, Thailand) and the major importers of virtual water (Sri Lanka, Japan, Netherlands) can be found at http://www.wateryear2003.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=5868&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html.
CANADA EXPORTS 95.3 GM3 OF VIRTUAL WATER A YEAR
A June 2008 article reports, “Canada is the second largest exporter of virtual water in the world, next to the United States, at 95.3 Gm³/year (approximately 7500 l/person/day).”
ANDREW NIKIFORUK (AND THE UN) SAYS CANADA EXPORTS 272.5 x 109 M3 OF VIRTUAL WATER
He writes in a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives paper, “Canada’s trade economy is deeply dependent on the quality and quantity of its water. Almost every Canadian product exported abroad (cattle, grain, hogs, automobiles, aluminum, electricity, wood or oil) contains enormous volumes of embedded water or what economists call ‘virtual water.’ Canada now exports more virtual water than either China or India in its trade goods. (About 15% of the water used in the world is exported in virtual form, largely because of cheap oil.) In addition, two out of every three litres of the nation’s freshwater withdrawals are used for the generation of electric power, an economic venture that is already threatened by climate change. Given the current volume of Canada’s virtual water exports (272.5 x 109 m3), exports of real water can only adversely affect the economy. University of Western Ontario engineer Slobodan Simonovic has calculated that “water export” from the St. Lawrence River Basin, for example, would reduce ‘the available water for consumption by different water use sectors.’ Exporting water simply means less water at home to create jobs and less water to sustain ecological services provided by rivers and lakes necessary for life.”
SCHINDLER AND HURLEY ON A WIDER DEFINITION OF VIRTUAL WATER IN THE CANADIAN CONTEXT, INCLUDING THE TAR SANDS
David Schindler and Adele Hurley wrote in November 2004 that, “As Boyd (2003) points out, many water uses that benefit the U.S. are already subject to regulation under NAFTA. One is the generation of hydroelectric power, much of which is sold to customers in the U.S. If we wished to reduce exports to the U.S. of electricity, NAFTA would require proportional cuts in our own power consumption. Even prior to NAFTA, Canada struck deals that greatly favoured the U.S. The Columbia River was dammed to supply power largely to the lower portion of the basin in the U.S. But Canadians paid for much of the cost of construction of the necessary infrastructure. No compensation was ever negotiated for the huge runs of anadromous salmon that once entered Canada via the river. This renewable resource has been lost forever, as long as the dams on the system remain. Much of the hydroelectric power generated within Canada also goes to the U.S. The enormous damage to rivers, lakes and aboriginal society has been considered an ‘externality’ in these arrangements to ship ‘virtual water.’ To satisfy U.S. hunger for cheap hydropower, Canadians have already made more interbasin transfers of water than any other nation. It seems somewhat hypocritical that the movement of water considered unacceptable between nations because of its great ecological liabilities (i.e. the Souris or Great Lakes) should be rendered acceptable simply by the fact that it occurs entirely within Canadian boundaries, especially when Americans are the primary beneficiaries. Other possibilities seem to fit. How about the export of cattle or other agricultural commodities raised in Canada, on irrigation water? Such exports of ‘virtual water’ have in many cases greatly harmed Canadian ecosystems. Over 60% of the energy from Alberta’s oil sands is exported to the U.S. Again, cutting exports would require treating Canadian customers in proportion. Extracting oil from the oil sands currently uses three to six barrels of water for every barrel of oil produced. It is another ‘virtual water’ export that degrades Canadian ecosystems.”
SOME NUMBERS ON THE VIRTUAL WATER TRADE TO JAPAN
A Food Exchange report notes that, “Japan would need more than 100 billion tons more water each year to produce the meat and grains such as wheat, corn and beans it imports, according to a study by a Kyoto research center. Taikan Oki, an assistant professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) in Kyoto, and his staff estimate that Japan imports 102.5 billion tons of ‘virtual water,’ as they call it, that went into the production of such commodities…The United States topped all other suppliers with its exports of virtual water to Japan at about 60 billion tons a year, followed by Australia and Canada. The three nations accounted for 88% of Japan’s virtual water imports.”
THE WORLD WATER COUNCIL BACKS THE VIRTUAL WATER TRADE
The World Water Council says, “Virtual water is the amount of water that is embedded in food or other products needed for its production. For example, to produce one kilogram of wheat we need about 1,000 litres of water, i.e. the virtual water of this kilogram of wheat is 1,000 litres. For meat, we need about five to ten times more….With the trade of food crops or any commodity, there is a virtual flow of water from producing and exporting countries to countries that consume and import those commodities. A water-scarce country can import products that require a lot of water for their production rather than producing them domestically. By doing so, it allows real water savings, relieving the pressure on their water resources or making water available for other purposes.”
GLOBAL WATER PARTNERSHIP SUPPORTS THE VIRTUAL WATER TRADE
In the August issue of ‘Scientific American’ which focuses on ‘facing the freshwater crisis’, Peter Rogers, a senior adviser to the Global Water Partnership, writes “Keeping the demand for irrigation water in arid and semiarid areas down while still meeting the world’s future food requirements can be supported by supplying ‘virtual water’ to those places. The term relates to the amount of water expended in producing food or commercial goods. If such products are exported to a dry region, then that area will not have to use its own water to create them. Hence, the items represent a transfer of water to the recipient locale and supply them with so-called virtual water. The notion of virtual water may sound initially like a mere accounting device, but provision of goods—and the virtual-water content of those goods—is helping many dry countries avoid using their own water supplies for growing crops, thus freeing up large quantities for other applications. The virtual-water concept and expanded trade have also led to the resolution of many international disputes caused by water scarcity. Imports of virtual water in products by Jordan have reduced the chance of water-based conflict with its neighbor Israel, for example. The magnitude of annual global trade in virtual water exceeds 800 billion m3 of water a year; the equivalent of 10 Nile Rivers. Liberalizing trade of farm products and reducing tariff restrictions that now deter the flow of foodstuffs would significantly enhance global virtual-water flows. Truly free farm trade, for instance, would double the current annual total delivery of virtual water to more than 1.7 trillion m3.”
The paper ‘NAFTA and Virtual Water Trade: An estimation of virtual water trade in livestock and livestock products between Canada and the United States’ by Nabeela Afrooz Rahman can be found at http://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/10012/3736/1/Nabeela_Rahman_MESThesis_2008.pdf.