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Virtual water and water footprints: Overreaching into the discourse on sustainability, efficiency, and equity

Dennis Wichelns
Bloomington, Indiana, USA; dwichelns@csufresno.edu

ABSTRACT: The notions of virtual water and water footprints were introduced originally to bring attention to the large amounts of water required to produce crops and livestock. Recently, several authors have begun applying those notions in efforts to describe efficiency, equity, and the sustainability of resources and production activities. In this paper, I describe why the notions of virtual water and water footprints are not appropriate for analysing issues pertaining to those topics. Both notions lack a supporting conceptual framework and they contain too little information to enhance understanding of important policy issues. Neither notion accounts for the opportunity cost or scarcity value of water in any setting, or the impacts of water availability and use on livelihoods. In addition, countries trade in goods and services – not in crop and livestock water requirements. Thus, the notions of virtual water and water footprints cannot provide helpful insight regarding the sustainability of water use, economic efficiency, or social equity. Gaining such insight requires the application of legitimate conceptual frameworks, representing a broad range of perspectives from the physical and social sciences, with due consideration of dynamics, uncertainty, and the impacts of policy choices on livelihoods and natural resources.

KEYWORDS: Agriculture, efficiency, food security, livelihoods, risk, trade, uncertainty