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Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 29 November 2017

This article has been updated


Recent hydrological modelling1 and Earth observations2,3 have located and quantified alarming rates of groundwater depletion worldwide. This depletion is primarily due to water withdrawals for irrigation1,2,4, but its connection with the main driver of irrigation, global food consumption, has not yet been explored. Here we show that approximately eleven per cent of non-renewable groundwater use for irrigation is embedded in international food trade, of which two-thirds are exported by Pakistan, the USA and India alone. Our quantification of groundwater depletion embedded in the world’s food trade is based on a combination of global, crop-specific estimates of non-renewable groundwater abstraction and international food trade data. A vast majority of the world’s population lives in countries sourcing nearly all their staple crop imports from partners who deplete groundwater to produce these crops, highlighting risks for global food and water security. Some countries, such as the USA, Mexico, Iran and China, are particularly exposed to these risks because they both produce and import food irrigated from rapidly depleting aquifers. Our results could help to improve the sustainability of global food production and groundwater resource management by identifying priority regions and agricultural products at risk as well as the end consumers of these products.

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Figure 1: Crop-specific contribution to groundwater depletion worldwide in 2010.
Figure 2: Groundwater depletion associated with national crop production and consumption of major traders.
Figure 3: Embedded groundwater depletion in international trade of crop commodities in 2010.

Change history

  • 30 November 2017

    Please see accompanying Corrigendum ( Supplementary Tables 1 and 2 were swapped. In addition, the information for China was missing from Supplementary Table 1. These errors have been corrected online.


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C.D. acknowledges the funding support of the Belmont Forum (SAHEWS project, NERC NE/L008785/1), the Economic and Social Research Council through the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, and the Natural Environment Research Council Fellowship (NERC NE/N01524X/1). T.K. was supported by the European Research Council Starting Grant LUISE (263522) and the Swedish Research Council Formas (grant number 231-2014-1181). M.J.P. acknowledges fellowship support from the Columbia University Center for Climate and Life. Y.W. is supported by a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Oversea Research Fellowship (JSPS-2014-878). This paper was presented at the conference Virtual Water in Agricultural Products: Quantification, Limitations and Trade Policy (Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, 14–16 September 2016), sponsored by the OECD Co-operative Research Programme: Biological Resource Management for Sustainable Agricultural Systems (CRP). The CRP financially supported C.D. to participate in the conference. The opinions expressed and arguments employed in this paper are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the OECD or of the governments of its Member countries.

Author information




C.D., Y.W. and M.J.P. designed the research. Y.W. carried out the simulation to estimate non-renewable groundwater abstraction per crop class. T.K., M.J.P. and C.D. processed the trade data. C.D. performed the analysis. C.D. wrote the paper with help from Y.W., M.J.P. and T.K.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carole Dalin.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

Reviewer Information Nature thanks M. Aldaya, D. Vanham and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Embedded groundwater depletion in international trade of crop commodities in 2000.

Volumes are given in units of cubic kilometres per year. The top ten importers are shown in bold font and the top ten exporters are underlined. Ribbon colours indicate the country of export. For clarity, we display only the links with a weight of at least 1% that of the largest link (the top 1.8% links that account for 81% of total flow and involve 72 countries).

Extended Data Figure 2 Embedded groundwater depletion in crop exports per capita in 2010.

GWD is given in units of cubic metres per capita of the exporting nation per year. The top ten exporters are underlined. For clarity, we display only the links with a weight of at least 1% that of the largest link (the top 3.2% links that account for 79% of total flow).

Extended Data Figure 3 Embedded groundwater depletion in crop imports per capita in 2010.

GWD is given in units of cubic metres per capita of the importing nation per year. The top ten importers are shown in bold font. For clarity, we display only the links with a weight of at least 1% that of the largest link (the top 1.6% links that account for 76% of total flow).

Extended Data Figure 4 Comparison of GWD trade flows under two trade data versions.

The exceedance probability p distribution of national GWD exports (sout) (a, b) and imports (sin) (b, c) using import–export (ie) and export–import (ei) trade data is shown for years 2000 (b, d) and 2010 (a, c).

Extended Data Table 1 130 primary crops used to aggregate trade flows of the 360 crop commodities considered, which are processed from these primary crops
Extended Data Table 2 Crops in the GWD data (from MIRCA crop classes) that are excluded from the trade analysis
Extended Data Table 3 Largest GWD imports and exports and variability across two trade data versions
Extended Data Table 4 Ten largest exporters of GWD per capita of exporting nation in 2010
Extended Data Table 5 Ten largest importers of GWD per capita of importing nation in 2010
Extended Data Table 6 Share of population dependent on GWD via food imports

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

This table shows shows the GWD intensities for crops belonging to 26 major crop classes, by country for years 2000 and 2010. A large variability in GWD intensities across countries and crop classes may be found. (XLSX 89 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

This table contains the extraction rates for food commodities. (XLS 98 kb)

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Dalin, C., Wada, Y., Kastner, T. et al. Groundwater depletion embedded in international food trade. Nature 543, 700–704 (2017).

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