Limitations & Objections

Virtual water and water footprints have been important in highlighting the role of water resources in international trade. However, some caution should be used when the concepts are applied to important policy questions. International trade is complex and involves many issues that are not captured in the notion of virtual water. Similarly, water use and allocation involve many more issues and implications than are captured in estimates of water footprints.

For instance, water footprinting analysis has been used to suggest that water-short countries should not produce and export water-intensive crops. This could encourage policymakers to promote production and trade strategies that reduce social net benefits. Several water-short countries, such as Israel, Jordan, and Australia, produce and trade water-intensive products. Those activities generate substantial revenue for the producers, while enhancing the portfolio of goods and services available in both the exporting and importing countries.

The virtual water perspective also neglects consideration of the impacts of production and trade on the livelihoods of individuals and the vibrancy of communities engaged in agriculture. Proposals to re-arrange international trading patterns based only on consideration of water endowments could impose substantial harm on individuals who earn their living in agriculture, particularly in poor countries.