virtual water
n. The water used to produce the goods that a country imports; the water that a country would require to produce domestically the goods that it imports.
People in Japan have an abundance of safe drinking water, so they may find it difficult to think of water problems as something close to home, but their way of life has global implications, according to PFW's Kanda.

"Because Japan depends on imports for about 60 percent of its food supply and 80 percent of its wood products, it can be said that it is actually a major water consumer," Kanda said, referring to studies on "virtual water," a concept that takes into account the amount of water that would be needed to produce goods domestically that a country imports.

According to research by Taikan Oki, an associate professor at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Japan imported 60 billion tons of virtual water in 2000.
—Asako Murakami, “Flood of opinions solicited for water forum,” The Japan Times, March 01, 2003
1995 (earliest)
It makes no economic sense for countries that depend on irrigation to grow low-value food with high water needs. The value of the water used for irrigating wheat, sugar or rice can end up being many times greater than the value of the produce: there is no way that these crops can compete with food staples grown in countries where the water rains down free from the heavens.

But switching crops is only a start. Some experts now call for more fundamental changes in the Middle East's rural life. Professor J.A. Allan, a specialist from London's School of Oriental and African Studies who has done his sums, argues that water-short countries can best help themselves by importing cheap food grown with cheap water: instead of using their scarce and costly water to grow their own food, they can get "virtual" water through world trade. It costs them less, and their water resources can be better used: the water that provides the livelihood of one farming family can keep ten non-farming families going.
—“As thick as blood. Water in the Middle East,” The Economist, December 23, 1995
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