Virtual versus real water transfers within China

Jing Ma, Arjen Ysbert Hoekstra, Hao wang, Ashok Chapagain, Dangxian Wang

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North China faces severe water scarcity—more than 40% of the annual renewable water resources are abstracted for human use. Nevertheless, nearly 10% of the water used in agriculture is employed in producing food exported to south China. To compensate for this ‘virtual water flow’ and to reduce water scarcity in the north, the huge south–north Water Transfer Project is currently being implemented. This paradox—the transfer of huge volumes of water from the water-rich south to the water-poor north versus transfer of substantial volumes of food from the food-sufficient north to the food-deficit south—is receiving increased attention, but the research in this field has not yet reached further than rough estimation and qualitative description. The aim of this paper is to review and quantify the volumes of virtual water flows between the regions in China and to put them in the context of water availability per region. The analysis shows that north China annually exports about 52 billion m3 of water in virtual form to south China, which is more than the maximum proposed water transfer volume along the three routes of the Water Transfer Project from south to north.
Original languageUndefined
Pages (from-to)835-842
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological sciences
Issue number2006
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • METIS-227833
  • IR-58355

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