Physical and virtual water transfers for regional water stress alleviation in China

Xu Zhao, Junguo Liu, Qingying Liu (Lead Author), Martin R. Tillotson, Dabo Guan, Klaus Hubacek

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416 Citations (Scopus)


Water can be redistributed through, in physical terms, water transfer projects and virtually, embodied water for the production of traded products. Here, we explore whether such water redistributions can help mitigate water stress in China. This study, for the first time to our knowledge, both compiles a full inventory for physical water transfers at a provincial level and maps virtual water flows between Chinese provinces in 2007 and 2030. Our results show that, at the national level, physical water flows because of the major water transfer projects amounted to 4.5% of national water supply, whereas virtual water flows accounted for 35% (varies between 11% and 65%at the provincial level) in 2007. Furthermore, our analysis shows that both physical and virtual water flows do not play a major role in mitigating water stress in the water-receiving regions but exacerbate water stress for the water-exporting regions of China. Future water stress in the main water-exporting provinces is likely to increase further based on our analysis of the historical trajectory of the major governing socioeconomic and technical factors and the full implementation of policy initiatives relating to water use and economic development. Improving water use efficiency is key to mitigating water stress, but the efficiency gains will be largely offset by the water demand increase caused by continued economic development. We conclude that much greater attention needs to be paid to water demand management rather than the current focus on supply-oriented management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1031-1035
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jan 2015


  • water transfer
  • virtual water
  • regional water stress
  • multiregional input-output analysis

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