Balancing water resource conservation and food security in China

Carole Dalin, Huanguang Qiu, Naota Hanasaki, Denise Leonore Mauzerall, Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

144 Scopus citations


China's economic growth is expected to continue into the next decades, accompanied by sustained urbanization and industrialization. The associated increase in demand for land, water resources, and rich foods will deepen the challenge of sustainably feeding the population and balancing agricultural and environmental policies. We combine a hydrologic model with an economic model to project China's future food trade patterns and embedded water resources by 2030 and to analyze the effects of targeted irrigation reductions on this system, notably on national agricultural water consumption and food self-sufficiency. We simulate interprovincial and international food trade with a general equilibrium welfare model and a linear programming optimization, and we obtain province-level estimates of commodities' virtual water content with a hydrologic model. We find that reducing irrigated land in regions highly dependent on scarce river flow and nonrenewable groundwater resources, such as Inner Mongolia and the greater Beijing area, can improve the efficiency of agriculture and trade regarding water resources. It can also avoid significant consumption of irrigation water across China (up to 14.8 km3/y, reduction by 14%), while incurring relatively small decreases in national food self-sufficiency (e.g., by 3% for wheat). Other researchers found that a national, rather than local, water policywould have similar effects on food production but would only reduce irrigation water consumption by 5%.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4588-4593
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 14 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Food trade
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Trade policy
  • Virtual water
  • Water saving


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