Volume versus value of crop-related water footprints and virtual water flows: A case study for the Yellow River Basin

La Zhuo, Meng Li, Guoping Zhang, Mesfin M. Mekonnen, Arjen Y. Hoekstra, Yoshihide Wada, Pute Wu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Blue water (irrigation water) and green water (rainwater) constitute the indispensable inputs in crop production, and they virtually flow through crop trade. The valuation of water for crops is becoming essential for providing not only guidance in measuring both the biophysical and economic sustainability of agricultural water resources but also crucial information for investors and authorities engaged in water allocations. However, valuation of green water has been severely disregarded. Here, taking the Yellow River Basin as the study case, we show the feasibility of estimating the value of green water for crop production considering the costs in production processes in addition to blue water valuation. Thus, the volume versus value of blue and green water consumed in crop production as well as that of corresponding virtual water (VW) flows related to crop transfers within the basin are comparable. Fourteen major crops in current three typical years and four scenarios for the year 2050 under climate-socio-economic changes are examined. Results show that value of blue water was approximately 3 times that of green water for irrigated crops, whereas at similar level to the value of green water for rain-fed crops. Visible trade-offs between the regional volume and value of water used in crop production and that of the intra-national VW flows exist in terms of magnitude in time and space, as well as the structure by crops. The total volumes of the water footprint (WF), i.e., water consumption, in crop production and VW exports changed little over years, however the corresponding total water values was tripled and seven-folded, respectively, due to apple production expansions. Wheat was the biggest contributor in volume of VW export while apple accounted the most in value of VW export of the basin. The considered scenarios for 2050 suggested that the reduced values of crop-related WF and VW flows were more sensitive than the corresponding water quantity. This study implies the importance of managing the internal trade-offs or mutual effects between water resources and economic returns.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - May 1 2022
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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