Water resources transfers through southern African food trade: water efficiency and climate signals

Temporal and spatial variability of precipitation in southern Africa is particularly high. The associated drought and flood risks, combined with a largely rain-fed agriculture, pose a challenge for water and food security in the region. As regional collaboration strengthens through the Southern Africa Development Community and trade with other regions increases, it is thus important to understand both how climate variability affects agricultural productivity and how food trade (regional and extra-regional) can contribute to the region’s capacity to deal with climate-related shocks. We combine global hydrological model simulations with international food trade data to quantify the water resources embedded in international food trade in southern Africa and with the rest of the world, from 1986–2011. We analyze the impacts of socio-economic changes and climatic variability on agricultural trade and embedded water resources during this period. We find that regional food trade is efficient in terms of water use but may be unsustainable because water-productive exporters, like South Africa, rely on increasingly stressed water resources. The role of imports from the rest of the world in the region’s food supply is important, in particular during severe droughts. This reflects how trade can efficiently redistribute water resources across continents in response to a sudden gap in food production. In a context of regional and global integration, our results highlight opportunities for improved water-efficiency and sustainability of the region’s food supply via trade.

Carole Dalin and Declan Conway (2016). In: Environmental Research Letters, Volume 11, Number 1