Imported water risk: the case of the UK

Arjen Ysbert Hoekstra, Mesfin Mekonnen

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While the water dependency of water-scarce nations is well understood, this is not the case for countries in temperate and humid climates, even though various studies have shown that many of such countries strongly rely on the import of water-intensive commodities from elsewhere. In this study we introduce a method to evaluate the sustainability and efficiency of the external water footprint (WF) of a country, with the UK as an example. We trace, quantify and map the UK's direct and indirect water needs and assess the 'imported water risk' by evaluating the sustainability of the water consumption in the source regions. In addition, we assess the efficiency of the water consumption in source areas in order to identify the room for water savings. We find that half of the UK's global blue WF—the direct and indirect consumption of ground- and surface water resources behind all commodities consumed in the UK—is located in places where the blue WF exceeds the maximum sustainable blue WF. About 55% of the unsustainable part of the UK's blue WF is located in six countries: Spain (14%), USA (11%), Pakistan (10%), India (7%), Iran (6%), and South Africa (6%). Our analysis further shows that about half of the global consumptive WF of the UK's direct and indirect crop consumption is inefficient, which means that consumptive WFs exceed specified WF benchmark levels. About 37% of the inefficient part of the UK's consumptive WF is located in six countries: Indonesia (7%), Ghana (7%), India (7%), Brazil (6%), Spain (5%), and Argentina (5%). In some source countries, like Pakistan, Iran, Spain, USA and Egypt, unsustainable and inefficient blue water consumption coincide. We find that, by lowering overall consumptive WFs to benchmark levels, the global blue WF of UK crop consumption could be reduced by 19%. We discuss four strategies to mitigate imported water risk: become more self-sufficient in food; diversify the import of water-intensive commodities, favouring the sourcing from water-abundant regions; reconsider the import of water-intensive commodities from the regions that are most severely water stressed altogether; and collaborate internationally with source countries with unsustainable water use where opportunities exist to increase water productivity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-9
JournalEnvironmental research letters
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • METIS-316552
  • IR-100895


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