36 months, 21 March 2013 – 20 March 2016

Coordinator: Prof. Stefano Schiavo
Area: Economics - Law
Goals of the Project

Analysis of the patterns of international flows of "virtual water". Specific attention will be devoted to the study the various restrictions (geographic, social, cultural, economic and legal) that may influence international virtual water trade and thus account for the limited ability of standard international trade models to explain the flows of water-intensive agricultural products.

Food security, intended as the ability to meet the energy needs of the world population, is tightly linked with water availability, as the latter is essential for food production. According to FAO estimates, between 1,000 to 2,000 liters of water are required to produce one kilo of wheat, and 13.000 to 15.000 liters to produce the same amount of meat. Thus, considering the water virtually embodied in commonly-eaten foods, one person consumes an average of 2.000 liters of water per day. In autarky, the population of each country would depend on the local availability of water resources used for food production, and on their efficient use. International trade in agro-food products breaks this constraint and allows transfers of "virtual water" from countries exporting food products to those importing them. About 2.000 billion cubic meters of virtual water are transferred each year through a network that connects more than 200 countries.

At present though, there is a limited understanding of how virtual water trade affects food security. The benefits of such indirect trade of water, for instance, could be negatively affected by the lack of a single system of shared rules defining the economic value of water resources and preventing the consequent over-exploitation of these resources in fragile socio-economical and environmental contexts.

The ViWaN project addresses these issues with an innovative and interdisciplinary approach aimed at studying the main drivers and consequences of international virtual water flows. The main objectives are two: a better understanding of the global dynamics in virtual water flows and the evaluation of the impact of such flows on food safety. We will investigate the complex relationships between climatic, agronomic and socio-economic factors that shape the evolution of the worldwide trade of virtual water. The project will deliver quantitative modeling tools that enable an explicit representation of the relationships between virtual water flows and a set of explanatory variables; these models will be applied to a comprehensive database specifically built for the purpose. In addition, to improve the future management of the virtual water trade, the project will provide with a series of operational guidelines and proposals which are based on quantitative data.

The project involves an interdisciplinary team of 4 research units based at the Polytechnic of Turin, the University of Trento, the University of Florence and IMT Advanced Studies Lucca.

The Research Unit

The Research Unit (RU) based at the School of International Studies - University of Trento comprises

  • Stefano Schiavo (School of International Studies and Department of Economics and Management - Team Leader)
  • Andrea Fracasso (School of International Studies and Department of Economics and Management)
  • Marco Pertile (School of International Studies and Faculty of Law)
  • Julinda Beqiraj (British Institute of International and Comparative Law, London)
  • Martina Sartori (School of International Studies)
  • Mara Tignino (University of Geneva, Faculté de droit)
  • Paolo Turrini (School of International Studies)
  • The RU will also collaborate with the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR), at the University of Dundee (Scotland, UK)

Role of the Research Unit based at the University of Trento

  1. the network of multilateral, regional, and bilateral agreements containing rules on trade in agricultural goods;
  2. the international customary norms and international treaties regulating the use of watercourses and trans-boundary freshwater resources;
  3. the identification of the economic and legal factors which may influence the price of water;
  4. the economic and technological factors that, through their impact on international exchanges of agricultural goods, have a bearing on the flows of VW;
  5. the classification of the paradigms of growth of various countries and of their impact on the inter-sectoral allocation of water.

Recent publications relevant to the project

SIS Working Papers Series

Publications in refereed journals