Virtual water and real thirst

The recent hike in the price of food worldwide is usually blamed on the price of oil or the conversion of food crops to biofuels.

But a handful of experts have pointed to a simpler cause: a shortage of water.

“The two underlying causes of the world food crisis are falling supplies and rising demand on the international market,” writes environmental consultant and author Fred Pearce in the London Telegraph. “Why falling supplies? Because of major droughts in Australia, one of the world’s big three suppliers, and Ukraine, another major exporter.

“Why rising demand?” Pearce continues. “Mainly because of booming China, where demand for grain is rising sharply at a time when every last drop of water in the north of the country, its major breadbasket, is already taken. The Yellow River rarely reaches the sea now.”

Indeed, China is having serious problems with water management.

Another great Chinese river, the Yangtze, fell to a 140-year low earlier this year, the Telegraph reported in January.

Cargo ships have run aground as water drains away underneath them and the endangered Yangtze River dolphin is now presumed extinct.

According to the Telegraph, Chinese authorities have admitted that they had diverted too much water away from the Yangtze when designing the enormous Three Gorges Dam.

Pearce’s article introduces the concept of “virtual water,” a term some economists use to describe the process whereby a water-poor nation imports food from a water-rich nation.

Perhaps the surest sign that the concept is catching on is the fact that environmental blogs are now making snarky comments about it.

“Remember when calculating your carbon footprint was all the rage?” a writer for Grist asked last week, before describing a new Web site that lets reader calculate their virtual water footprint.

The site,, takes into account not only personal water use, but diet and other indicators of virtual water.

–Will Crain/


“Water – the under-reported resource crisis”
Telegraph, April 22, 2008

“Yangtze River water level at 140-year low”
Telegraph, January 17, 2008

“Virtual water is the new carbon footprint”
Grist, April 21, 2008

One thought on “Virtual water and real thirst

  1. This is very interesting. I’ve been trying to get down to the bottom of the food crisis because all the blame going to bio fuel, especially coming from Rice seemed a bit suspect. So thank you for your piece. Here is a site you and your readers may enjoy, Put it on your bookmarks page and use it for every online purchase… First choose a nonprofit you want a percent of your sale to go to, then just do your normal shopping, (lot’s of GREEN stores available). I’ve been choosing The Hunger Project or NAP Africa lately. Easy way to give money just by doing the monthly shopping that you always do. Enjoy!