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PLoS One. 2013;8(2):e55825. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055825. Epub 2013 Feb 15.

Recent history and geography of virtual water trade.

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  • 1Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States of America.


The global trade of goods is associated with a virtual transfer of the water required for their production. The way changes in trade affect the virtual redistribution of freshwater resources has been recently documented through the analysis of the virtual water network. It is, however, unclear how these changes are contributed by different types of products and regions of the world. Here we show how the global patterns of virtual water transport are contributed by the trade of different commodity types, including plant, animal, luxury (e.g., coffee, tea, and alcohol), and other products. Major contributors to the virtual water network exhibit different trade patterns with regard to these commodity types. The net importers rely on the supply of virtual water from a small percentage of the global population. However, discrepancies exist among the different commodity networks. While the total virtual water flux through the network has increased between 1986 and 2010, the proportions associated with the four commodity groups have remained relatively stable. However, some of the major players have shown significant changes in the virtual water imports and exports associated with those commodity groups. For instance, China has switched from being a net exporter of virtual water associated with other products (non-edible plant and animal products typically used for manufacturing) to being the largest importer, accounting for 31% of the total water virtually transported with these products. Conversely, in the case of The United states of America, the commodity proportions have remained overall unchanged throughout the study period: the virtual water exports from The United States of America are dominated by plant products, whereas the imports are comprised mainly of animal and luxury products.

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