The concept can help conserve water, address water scarcity, and improve food security
Distinguished from the concept of water footprint, which assesses both direct and indirect water usage related to a product or activity—including blue, green, and grey water categories—virtual water focuses on understanding the amount of water embedded in the production and trade of goods and services, allowing us to analyze the global transfer of water resources through trade.
The idea of virtual water is taking a measurement of the water used during the production of an item as well as the water needed to grow the raw materials used. The significance of this invisible water is particularly relevant to commodities that require a lot of water to produce.
A clear example of virtual water use can be seen in farming and food production, where a lot of virtual water is used to get your food from the field to your plate. A good amount of this water comes from underground sources. Throughout this process, plants get water from rain and hoses, thirsty animals drink, different types of food get prepared, packed, and sent to stores. At each step, water is needed — oftentimes, in substantial quantities. This hidden water contributes significantly to the items’ water footprint.
Consider the United States, where irrigation alone constituted 42% of the country’s total freshwater withdrawals in 2015, with the majority directed toward agricultural activities. Moreover, agriculture in the US contributes to approximately 80-90% of the nation’s overall water use.
Understanding virtual water allows us to compare the impact of water use across various sectors and to assess how much water is used to produce an item relative to the value the product adds.
According to the Global Water Partnership, the concept was devised to help countries improve their water security by importing water-intensive products, rather than producing them. Measuring virtual water also allows water-rich countries to benefit from their abundant resources by producing and exporting items with a high water demand. By doing this, the trade in virtual water between nations can improve the efficiency of water use globally.
Some of the more water-intensive products we use include:
- Vehicles (13,737–21,926 gallons of water to produce one car)
- Smartphones (3,190 gallons of water to produce one phone)
- Jeans (2,866 gallons of water to produce one pair of jeans)
- Bed Linens (2,576 gallons of water to produce one bed sheet)
- Paper Products (3 gallons of water to produce one sheet of paper).
Producing water-intensive products in water-rich regions relieves the strain on resources and on the environment in water-scarce countries. But water availability is not the only factor to consider.
According to the Global Water Partnership:
“Data indicates that virtual water trade (in economic goods) is more dependent on arable land than water resources. Countries that have adequate water resources but little cropland import large amounts of virtual water, and countries with abundant arable land will have high virtual water exports, even if water resources are strained.
Virtual Water Matters
Understanding virtual water is important for several reasons.
The agricultural sector is the biggest water consumer in the world. Analyzing virtual water can promote water-efficient agricultural practices, contributing to sustainable food production and distribution. Virtual water can also help us better understand the relationship between water scarcity and food security, and the role that food trade can play in compensating for water scarcity.
Virtual water can also play a significant role in improving water security in water-scarce and water-stressed regions. By importing water-intensive products, water-scarce regions are essentially importing virtual water. Recognizing this can help in making decisions about resource management and water allocation.
Because virtual water helps quantify the indirect water consumption associated with products and services, it allows individuals, businesses, and policymakers to gain a clearer understanding of the true water footprint of those goods and services.
Reducing Virtual Water
The concept of virtual water can promote conservation and more efficient water use. Reducing the water intensity of products and services reduces the overall water footprint of specific industries, sectors, and even countries, ultimately relieving the pressure on natural water resources.
Water reuse is a valuable tool for reducing virtual water. Wastewater treatment technologies can contribute to water reuse efforts by treating and purifying wastewater to a level where it can be safely and effectively reused for non-potable purposes, such as irrigation, industrial processes, and cooling systems. This practice conserves fresh water resources and aligns with the principles of virtual water management.
Sustainable Water Management
Virtual water trade can address water scarcity and improve food security. However, policymakers must have a thorough understanding of the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of using virtual water trade as a strategic tool, as well as its geopolitical implications. The Global Water Partnership points out that if we hope to develop solutions to water scarcity and to boost food security based on virtual water data, these findings must be linked to local, regional, and river basin issues, taking into account the environmental and social implications.
Virtual water can provide valuable insights into the hidden water in products and services, helping us see their true water footprint. By considering virtual water, we can make more informed decisions that contribute to water security, sustainable development, and efficient resource use. If your operation is considering reducing its water footprint, contact Seven Seas Water Group. Our wastewater solutions treat billions of gallons per year around the globe, and our experts can help identify your wastewater reuse opportunities.
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