How international trade can enhance national water dependency

Nations can be 'water dependent' in two different ways. Most writings about national water dependency are concerned with the dependency of downstream nations on the inflow from water from upstream basins or the mutual dependency of nations sharing a border river. This type of water dependency is sometimes quantified by considering the ratio of external to total renewable water resources of a country. FAO (2007) defines the 'external renewable water resources' of a country as that part of the country's renewable water resources which is not generated in the country. It includes inflows from upstream countries (groundwater and surface water) and part of the water of border lakes or rivers. The 'internal renewable water resources' of a country concern the average annual flow of rivers and recharge of aquifers generated by endogenous precipitation. The total renewable water resources of a country are the sum of internal and external renewable water resources. Table 2 shows the 'external water resources dependency' for a number of selected downstream countries. For a country like Egypt the dependency is extremely high, because the country receives hardly any precipitation and thus mostly depends on the inflowing Nile water. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, Pakistan strongly depends on the water of the Indus, Cambodia on the water of the Mekong and Iraq on the Tigris and Euphrates. In all these cases water is an important geopolitical resource, affecting power relations between the countries that share a common river basin. In a country like the Netherlands external water resources dependency is high but less important, because water is less scarce than in the previous cases. Nevertheless, here too there is a dependency, since activities within the upstream countries definitely affect downstream low flows, peak flows and water quality.

The political relevance of 'external water resources dependency' of nations makes water a regional geopolitical resource in some river basins. The other type of water dependency, virtual water import dependency, makes water a global geopolitical resource. The fundamental reason is the combination of increasing scarcity of water, its unique character that prevents substitution and its uneven distribution throughout the world. Where water-abundant regions did not fully exploit their potential in the past, they now increasingly do so by exporting water in virtual form or even in real form. The other side of the coin is the increasing dependency of water-scarce nations on the supply of food or water, which can be exploited politically by those nations that control the water.

TABLE 2. Dependency on incoming river flows for selected countries

Country

Internal renewable water resourcesa (109 m3/year)

External (actual) renewable water resources3 (109 m3/year)

External water resources dependencyb (%)

Iraq

35

40

53

Cambodia

121

356

75

Pakistan

52

170

77

Netherlands

1.1

80

88

Egypt

1.8

56.5

b Defined as the ratio of the external to the total renewable water resources.

b Defined as the ratio of the external to the total renewable water resources.

From a water resources point of view one might expect a positive relationship between water scarcity and virtual water import dependency, particularly in the ranges of great water scarcity. Virtual water import dependency is defined as the ratio of the external water footprint of a country to its total water footprint. As Hoekstra and Chapagain (2008) show, countries with a very high degree of water scarcity - e.g. Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Israel, Oman, Lebanon and Malta - indeed

TABLE 3. Virtual water import dependency of some selected countries. Period: 1997-2001

Country Internal External water Water self- Virtual water water footprint3 sufficiencyb import footprint3 (109 m3/year) (%) dependencyc _(109 m3/year)_(%)_

Indonesia

242

28

90

10

Egypt

56

13

81

19

S. Africa

31

9

78

22

Mexico

98

42

70

30

Spain

60

34

64

36

Italy

66

69

49

51

Germany

60

67

47

53

Japan

52

94

36

64

U.K.

22

51

30

70

Jordan

1.7

4.6

27

73

Netherlands

4

16

18

82

aHoekstra and Chapagain (2008).

bDefined as the ratio of the internal to the total water footprint. cDefined as the ratio of the external to the total water footprint.

aHoekstra and Chapagain (2008).

bDefined as the ratio of the internal to the total water footprint. cDefined as the ratio of the external to the total water footprint.

have a very high virtual water import dependency (>50%). The water footprints of these countries have largely been externalised. Jordan annually imports a virtual water quantity that is five times its own yearly renewable water resources. Although saving its domestic water resources, it makes Jordan heavily dependent on other nations, for instance the United States. Other water-scarce countries with high virtual water import dependency (25-50%) are for instance Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Algeria, Libya, Yemen and Mexico. Table 3 presents the data for a few selected countries. Even European countries that do not have an image of being water-scarce, such as the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark, have a high virtual water import dependency. In those cases where large virtual water imports go together with national water abundance, the import is obviously not related to water scarcity but must be explained from other factors.

In most water-scarce countries the choice is either (over)exploitation of the domestic water resources in order to increase water self-sufficiency (the apparent strategy of Egypt) or virtual water import at the cost of becoming water dependent (Jordan). The two largest countries in the world, China and India, still have a very high degree of national water self-sufficiency (93% and 98% respectively). However, the two countries have relatively low water footprints per capita (China 700 m3/capita/year and India 980 m3/capita/year). If the consumption pattern in these countries changes to that of the USA or some Western European countries, they will be facing a severe water scarcity in the future and will probably be unable to sustain their high degree of water self-sufficiency. A relevant question is how China and India are going to feed themselves in the future. If they were to decide to partially obtain food security through food imports, this would put enormous demands on the land and water resources in the rest of the world.

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