Water Resources, Food Security and the Role of Virtual Water Trade in the MENA Region

  • Marta AntonelliEmail author
  • Francesco Laio
  • Stefania Tamea


Food security, and in particular food availability, depends on environmental resources, climatic conditions and agricultural practices, having water resources as a common denominator. There is major concern about food security in countries having limited water resources, due to the large volumes of water that are required to produce food commodities. Water-deficit countries tend to rely on international trade to close the gap between water (and thus food) demand and supply. Against this backdrop, the purpose of this study is twofold. First, to analyse water resources in the Middle East and North African region also considering the political economy trends and dynamics, which drive the region’s demand for water. Secondly, the study aims to increase understanding on the role that trade of agricultural commodities has played in meeting the requirements of the MENA populations, in terms of food and associated water ‘embedded’ as a factor of production. The study argues that virtual water trade, that is, the virtual transfer of the water used for agricultural production from producing to consuming countries, has provided the region’s economies with water and food security over the past 25 years. The study shows that virtual water imports have more than doubled and the increase has been more than proportional to population growth in the area. Food products account by far for the largest share of virtual water flows, while crops and high value foods are the main categories of agricultural products associated with virtual water imports. The largest share of the MENA imports originate from outside the region, thus determining a marked dependency on water resources available elsewhere, but not always from water-secure countries.


Water scarcity Food security Virtual water trade Import dependency 


  1. Al Masah Capital Limited. (2012). MENA food security: Are we doing enough to feed the population? Dubai, Al Masah Capital Limited. Available online at:
  2. Allan, J. A. (1993). Fortunately there are substitutes for water otherwise our hydro-political futures would be impossible. In Priorities for water resources allocation and management (pp. 13–26). London: ODA.Google Scholar
  3. Allan, J. A. (2001). The Middle East water questions. Hydropolitics and the global economy. London: I.B. Tauris.Google Scholar
  4. Allan J. A. (2005). Groundwater use in the Middle East and the rural transformation and environmental consequences. In Increasing water’s contribution to development in the Middle East and NorthAfrica. MENA Regional Development Report on Water, Report for the World Bank: Washington DC.Google Scholar
  5. Allan, J. A. (2013). Food-water security: Beyond water and the water sector. In B. Lankford, K. Bakker, M. Zeitoun, & D. Conway (Eds.), Water security: Principles, perspectives, practices. London: Earthscan.Google Scholar
  6. Al-Rashed, M. F., & Sherif, M. M. (2000). Water resources in the GCC countries: An overview. Water Resources Management, 14(1), 59–75. doi: 10.1023/A:1008127027743.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Antonelli, M., Roson, R., & Sartori, M. (2012). Systemic input-output computation of green and blue virtual water ‘Flows’. With an illustration for the Mediterranean region. Water Resources Management, 26(14), 4133–4146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Antonelli, M., Siciliano, G., Turvani, M. E., & Rulli, M. C. (2015). Global investments in agricultural land and the role of the EU: Drivers, scope and potential impacts. Land Use Policy, 47, 98–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. AQUASTAT. (2014). Database of the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations, land and water division. Available online at: Accessed June 2014
  10. Barnaby, W. (2009). Do nations go to war over water? Nature, 458, 282–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Carr, J. A., D’Odorico, P., Laio, F., & Ridolfi, L. (2012). On the temporal variability of the virtual water network. Geophysical Research Letters, 39(6), L06404. doi: 10.1029/2012GL051247.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Carr, J. A., D’Odorico, P., Laio, F., & Ridolfi, L. (2013). Recent history and geography of virtual water trade. PloS One, 8(2), e55825. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055825.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cline, W. (2007). Global warming and agriculture: Impact estimates by country. Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics.Google Scholar
  14. De Pauw E. (2000), Drought early warning systems in West Asia and North Africa. In D. A. Wilhite, V. K. Sivakumar, & D. A. Wood (Eds.), Early warning systems for drought preparedness and drought management. Proceedings of an Expert Group Meeting, Lisbon, Portugal, September 5–7, World Meteorological Association. Available online at
  15. El-Fadel, M., & Maroun, M. (2008). Virtual water trade as an adaptation demand management of climate change impact on water resources in the Middle East. In Climatic changes and water resources in the Middle East and North Africa (pp. 93–108). Berlin: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. El-Sadek, A. (2010). Virtual water trade as a solution for water scarcity in Egypt. Water Resources Management, 24(11), 2437–2448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fahed, A. C., El-Hage-Sleiman, A. M., Farhat, T. I., & Nemer, G. M. (2012). Diet, genetics, and disease: A focus on the Middle East and North Africa region. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, 2012, 1.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. (2000). New dimensions in water security. Water, society and ecosystem services in the 21st century. FAO: Rome. Available online at:
  19. FAO. (2003). Review of world water resources by country. Water Reports, 23. Available online at
  20. FAO. (2008a). A review of drought occurrence and monitoring and planning activities in the near East region. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Regional Office for the Near East, Cairo, Egypt, and National Drought Mitigation Center. Nebraska: University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Available online at
  21. FAO. (2008b). Climate change and disaster risk management. Technical background Document from the Expert Consultation. Available online at
  22. FAO. (2011). The state of world’s land and water resources. Managing systems at risk. Rome: FAO. Available online at
  23. FAOSTAT. (2013). Database of the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. Statistical Office. Available online at: Accessed March 2013.
  24. Faramarzi, M., Yang, H., Mousavi, J., Schulin, R., Binder, C. R., & Abbaspour, K. C. (2010). An analysis of intra-country virtual water trade strategy to alleviate water scarcity in Iran. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences Discussions, 7, 2609–2649.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fichtner (Fichtner GmbH and Co. KG), & DLR (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt e.V.). (2011). MENA regional water outlook, Part II, desalination using renewable energy, Task 1–Desalination potential; Task 2–Energy requirements; Task 3–Concentrate management. Final Report, commissioned by the World Bank, Stuttgart.Google Scholar
  26. Gerten, D., Heinke, J., Hoff, H., Biemans, H., Fader, M., & Waha, K. (2011). Global water availability and requirements for future food production. Journal of Hydrometeorology, 12, 885–899.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Gilmont, E. M. (2014). Decoupling dependence on natural water: Reflexivity in the regulation and allocation of water in Israel. Water Policy, 16(1), 79–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Gleick, P. H. (2000). The world’s water 2000–2001: The biennial report on freshwater resources. Washington, DC: Island Press.Google Scholar
  29. Hoekstra, A. Y. (2013). The water footprint: The relation between human consumption and water use. In M. Antonelli & F. Greco (Eds.), The water we eat. Combining virtual water and water footprints. Cham: Springer Water.Google Scholar
  30. Hoekstra, A. Y., Chapagain, A. K., Aldaya, M. M., & Mekonnen, M. M. (2011). The water footprint assessment manual – Setting the global standard. London: Earthscan Ltd.Google Scholar
  31. Immerzeel, W., Droogers, P., Terink, W., Hoogeveen, J., Hellegers, P., Bierkens, M., & van Beek, R. (2011). Middle-East and Northern Africa water outlook. World Bank Study, FutureWater Report, 98.Google Scholar
  32. IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. (2008). Climate change and water. In B. C. Bates, Z. W. Kundzewicz, S. Wu, &, J. P. Palutikof (Eds.), Technical paper VI, Geneva: IPCC Secretariat. Available online at
  33. Konar, M., Dalin, C., Suweis, S., Hanasaki, N., Rinaldo, A., & Rodriguez-Iturbe, I. (2011). Water for food: The global virtual water trade network. Water Resources Research, 47, W05520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Lagi, M., Bertrand, K. Z., & Bar-Yam Y. (2011). The food crises and political instability in North Africa and the Middle East. New England Complex Systems Institute. Available online at
  35. Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2010a). The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products. Value of Water Research Report Series, 47. Delft: UNESCO-IHE.Google Scholar
  36. Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2010b). The green, blue and grey water footprint of farm animals and animal products. Value of Water Research Report Series, 48. Delft: UNESCO-IHE.Google Scholar
  37. Mekonnen, M. M., & Hoekstra, A. Y. (2011). National water footprints accounts (Value of Water Research Report Series, 50). Delft: UNESCO-IHE.Google Scholar
  38. Merrett, S. (2003). Virtual water and the Kyoto consensus. Water Alternatives, 28(4), 540–542.Google Scholar
  39. Minot, N., Chemingui, M. A., Thomas, M., Dewina, R., & Orden, D. (2010). Trade liberalization and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa. IFPRI. Available online at
  40. Mohammadi-Kanigolzar, F., Daneshvar, A. J., & Motee, N. (2014). Virtual water trade as a strategy to water resources management in Iran. Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 6, 141–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Nassar, Y. H. (2007). Virtual water trade as a policy instrument for achieving water security in Palestine. Water Resources the Middle East, 2, 141–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. O’Sullivan, A., Rey, M., & Galvez Mendez J. (2011). Opportunities and challenges in the MENA Region. In World Economic Forum, OECD (Eds.), Arab world competitiveness report 2011–2012 (pp. 42–67).Google Scholar
  43. Reimer, J. J. (2012). On the economics of virtual water trade. Ecological Economics, 75, 135–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Roth, D., & Warner, J. (2007). Virtual water: Virtuous impact? The unsteady state of virtual water. Agriculture and Human Values, 25, 257–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Roudi-Fahimi, F., & Mederios Kent, M. (2007). Challenges and opportunities – The population of the Middle East and North Africa (Population Bulletin, vol. 62, no. 2). Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.Google Scholar
  46. Roudi-Fahimi, F., Creel, L., & De Souza, R. (2002). Finding the balance: Population and water scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau.Google Scholar
  47. Sakmar, L. S., Wackernagel, M., Galli, A., & Moore D. (2011). Sustainable development and environmental challenges in the MENA region: Accounting for the environment in the 21st century. Working Paper 592. Available at
  48. Shetty, S. (2006). Water, food security and agricultural policy in the Middle East and North Africa region. Working paper series, 47, Office of the Chief Economist, World Bank. Available online at:
  49. SIWI [Stockholm International Water Institute]. (2009). Innovations in groundwater governance in the MENA region. In G. de Gooijer, R. Lofgren, J. Granit, A. Jagerstog, A. Aureli, & A. Renck (Eds.), Middle East North Africa Report from World Water Week 2008. Paper 14.Google Scholar
  50. Smakhtin, V., Revenga, C., & Doll, P. (2004). A pilot global assessment of environmental water requirements and scarcity. Water International, 29(3), 307–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Suweis, S., Konar, M., Dalin, C., Hanasaki, N., Rinaldo, A., & Rodriguez-Iturbe, I. (2011). Structure and controls of the global virtual water trade network. Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L10403.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Tamea, S., Allamano, P., Carr, J. A., Claps, P., Laio, F., & Ridolfi, L. (2013). Local and global perspectives on the virtual water trade. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 17, 1205–1215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Tamea, S., Carr, J. A., Laio, F., & Ridolfi, L. (2014). Drivers of the virtual water trade. Water Resources Research, 50, 17–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tropp, H., & Jagerskog A. (2006). Water scarcity challenges in the Middle East and North Africa. Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper, 31, SIWI, Stockholm International Water Institute.Google Scholar
  55. UNDG [United Nations Development Group]. (2011) Food security challenges in the Arab States/MENA region in the context of climate change: The role of the regional directors team, position paper, Regional UNDG Arab States/Middle East and North Africa, Nexus of Climate Change and Food Security.Google Scholar
  56. UNDP [United Nations Development Programme]. (2009). Arab human development report 2009: Challenges to human security in the Arab countries. New York: Regional Bureau for Arab States.Google Scholar
  57. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs [UNDESA]. (1998). International merchandise trade statistics: Concepts and definitions (Studies in methods series M, 52, Rev. 2). New York: United Nations. Available online at
  58. Veiga da Cunha, L. (2007). Water: A human right or an economic resource? In M. R. Llamas, L. Martìnez-Cortina, & A. Mukherji (Eds.), Water ethics. CRC Press: Boca Raton.Google Scholar
  59. WHO/FAO [World Health Organization/FAO]. (2003). Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases. Report of a joint WHO/FAO expert consultation, Geneva.Google Scholar
  60. Woertz, E. (2013). Oil for food. The global food crisis and the Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. World Bank. (2003). Trade, investment, and development in the Middle East and North Africa: Engaging with the world. Orientations in Development. MENA development report. Washington, DC: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  62. World Bank. (2007). Making the most of scarcity: Accountability for better water management results in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA development report). Washington, DC: The World Bank.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. World Bank. (2008). Agriculture for development. Washington, DC: World Bank.Google Scholar
  64. World Bank. (2009). Water in the Arab world. Management perspectives and innovations. In N. V. Jagannathan, A. S. Mohamed, & A. Kremer (Eds),Washington, DC.Google Scholar
  65. World Bank. (2014). World Bank online database. Available online at: Accessed 5 March 2014.
  66. World Bank, FAO, & IFAD. (2009). Improving food security in Arab countries. Washington, DC: The World Bank.Google Scholar
  67. Yang, H., & Zehnder, A. J. B. (2002). Water scarcity and food import: A case study for Southern Mediterranean countries. World Development, 30(8), 1413–1430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Yang, H., Wang, L., Abbaspour, K. C., & Zehnder, A. J. B. (2006). Virtual water trade: An assessment of water use efficiency in the international food trade. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 10(3), 443–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Yang, H., Wang, L., & Zehnder, A. J. B. (2007). Water scarcity and food trade in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean countries. Food Policy, 32, 586–605.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Zehnder, A. J. B., Yang, H., & Schertenleib, R. (2003). Water issues: The need for actions at different levels. Aquatic Sciences, 65, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marta Antonelli
    • 1
    Email author
  • Francesco Laio
    • 2
  • Stefania Tamea
    • 2
  1. 1.System Analysis, Integrated Assessment and ModellingSwiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG)DübendorfSwitzerland
  2. 2.Politecnico di TorinoTurinItaly

Personalised recommendations