Council of Canadians' new report: Leaky Exports - A portrait of the virtual water trade in Canada

On Wednesday, the Council of Canadians released a new report entitled Leaky Exports: A portrait of the virtual water trade in Canada. The report reveals alarming facts about the virtual water trade including the fact that Canada is the second net virtual water exporter in the world. The report provides an overview of the concept of virtual water trade as well as an analysis of the current and projected volume of water that is exported out of the country in the form of agricultural and industrial goods. This report is important food for thought for policy-makers responsible for protecting Canada’s freshwater sources and ensuring sustainable water use for generations to come.

What is virtual water?

Virtual, or embedded, water is the amount of water used to produce a good or a service. Virtual water content is the volume of fresh water used to produce a product. For example, it takes 140 litres to produce one cup of coffee (125 ml). See the table below for the virtual water content of commonly used, day-to-day items.

Table: The Virtual Water Content of various products

Product                                       VWC (litres)

1 sheet of paper (80 g/m2)                         10
1 cup of tea (250 ml)                                 35
1 orange (100g)                                        50
1 apple (100g)                                          70
1 glass of beer (250 ml)                            75
1 slice of bread (30 g) with cheese (10g)    90
1 glass of wine (125 ml)                           120
1 egg (40g)                                             140
1 cup of coffee (125 ml)                            140
1 glass of milk (200 ml)                            200
1 hamburger (150g)                               2,400
1 cotton T-shirt (250g)                            2,700
1 pair of shoes (animal leather)              8,000
(Source: Hoekstra & Chapagain, 2008)

How much water is Canada really exporting?

Several key findings include how much water Canada really exports. Canada’s net annual virtual water exports (exports minus imports) amount to just under 60 billion cubic metres, enough to fill the Rogers Centre in Toronto 37,500 times. Every year, Canada exports an amount of virtual water in wheat, barley, rye and oats equivalent to twice the annual discharge of the Athabasca River. Although Alberta has only 2% of the country’s water supply, the province accounts for two-thirds of the country’s water used for irrigation, most of which is exported.

Virtual water trade

Virtual water trade between countries is the amount of virtual water transferred from one place to another because of product trade. If countries import water-intensive products, they offset their water demands for the product as well as their water demands overall.

Where is our virtual water going?

The United States is the destiny of most of Canada’s virtual water exports.

  • Over 60 per cent of Canada’s total agricultural exports and their embedded wa¬ter go to the U.S.
  • The U.S. is the destination of almost 99 per cent of Canada’s cattle and swine exports.
  • Every year, Canada uses (and destroys) 1 billion, 95 million cubic metres of fresh water in the production – mostly for export to the U.S. – of energy from the tar sands of Alberta.
  • The U.S. is the destination of 58 per cent or 1.1 Bm3 of virtual water exports an¬nually from Canada’s minerals, metals and non-metal commodities, including coal.

Do we have as much water as we think we do?

Canada is commonly referred to as a water-rich country with 20% of the global water supplies. However, Canada only has 6.5% of the world’s renewable water and only 1% of Canada's fresh water is renewable. In September 2010, Statistics Canada reported that the amount of renewable water sources in Canada fell 8.5% from 1971 to 2004, an equivalent of 1.4 million Olympic-size swimming pools and almost as much water as was supplied to the country’s entire residential population in 2005. The report confirmed the findings of other federal government reports including an internal 2007 document titled A Federal Perspective on Water Quantity Issues, which warned of a fresh water crisis in Canada for which the federal government is not prepared.

Leaky Exports dispels the ‘myth of abundance’ and is a wake-up call for policy makers.  If governments allow Canada’s economy to continue producing water-intensive goods based on the assumption that water in Canada limitless, we may be closer to freshwater crisis sooner than we think.

Leaky Exports: A portrait of the virtual water trade in Canada, written by Nabeela Rahman and edited by Meera Karunananthan and Maude Barlow, can be found here.