Virtual water is water that is used in the production of food or electricity. For example, according to the World Water Council, producing a kilogram of wheat requires roughly 1000 litres of water, giving it a virtual-water content of 1000 litres. When international trade in the commodities takes place, the virtual water can leave or enter a country.

“The management of real and virtual water are both relevant when addressing the issue of poverty alleviation,” Jennifer McKay, director of the Centre for Comparative Water Policies and Laws at the University of South Australia, told environmentalresearchweb. “The main aim of the virtual-water trading council would be to ensure that the water replaced when food, electricity or industrial goods are imported is used to achieve sanitation outcomes in the importing country. Also that the exporting country does not endanger the health of its citizens by exporting.”

McKay believes that the virtual-water trading council could solve regional problems by accessing virtual water from a wider variety of places. It could also help boost food security.

Currently, some of the biggest net exporters of virtual water are the US, Canada, Thailand, Argentina, India, Vietnam, France and Brazil. Meanwhile, big net importers of virtual water include Sri Lanka, Japan, the Netherlands, South Korea, China, Spain, Egypt, Germany and Italy.

”The virtual-water trading council would work under international treaties and bilateral arrangements,” she said. “The importing country would need to have a national water plan to show how the saved water will be applied to health and sanitation measures.”

For the proposed virtual-water trading council to work within the WTO, the present WTO signatories will need to agree and others wishing to be involved will need to make arrangements with the organization.

The set-up process for the council would need to be “multilateral through the WTO using GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) agreements and international law – humanitarian law in particular”. McKay believes that the UN would also be well placed to assist.

“The WTO is operating more effectively now than ever so the prospects look improved,” she added. “The next steps are to present at the UN and WTO proposals including an assessment of the negative health effects of exporting food, electricity and goods, and to see if some simple multilateral agreements can be made,” said McKay.

• McKay spoke on the proposed virtual-water trading council at the AAAS Annual Meeting in San Francisco.