Geophysical Research Letters

On the temporal variability of the virtual water network



[1] Food security strongly depends on how water resources available in a certain region contribute to determine the maximum amount of food that it can produce. Human societies often cope with water scarcity by importing food products from other regions. Thus, the international trade of food commodities is associated with a virtual transfer of water resources from production to consumption regions through a network of trade. Even though global food security increasingly relies on this trade, the spatiotemporal patterns of the virtual water network remain poorly investigated. It is unclear how these patterns are changing over time, whether there is an increase in the interconnectedness of the network, and at what rate the globalization of water resources is occurring. Here we use a rich database of international trade and reconstruct the virtual water network from 1986 through 2008. We find that the total flow has more than doubled, and the number of links has increased by 92% over this time period. The network has become more homogeneous but most of the flow concentrates in few links and hubs, while several countries exhibit only few (and weak) connections. 50% of the global fluxes are carried by 1.1% of the links, and on average 6–8% of the global population controls more than 50% of the net virtual water exports. The network is extremely dynamic and intermittent with only few permanent links, while each year many links are created and dismissed.