Though Siberia and the Russian Far East are often considered oil and gas reservoirs, the southern areas of these regions have significant potential for water-intensive production, such as agricultural goods, chemicals, pulp and paper, metals, hydro energy. This potential is strengthening due to the proximity of the most dynamic and water demanding region of the world—the Asian-Pacific region (APR), where the challenge of water and food security is recognized as strategic. Russian political discourse has always been determined by a Eurocentric focus which has seriously constrained intensive cooperation with Asia. This paper investigates the opportunities and challenges to Siberia and the Russian Far East from the perspective of interdependence theory and its water specification—the virtual water concept.

1. Introduction

Freshwater stress already affects 1.9 billion people worldwide, and UN forecasts say that two-thirds of the Earth’s population will be experiencing it by 2050. Governments, international organizations, NGOs and scholars are paying increased attention to the challenge of water scarcity which is one of the main threats to international security and sustainability. A special focus of this research is a case study of South and East Asia with China, India and other Asia Pacific region (APR) countries as the most illustrative examples. Since the 1990s, water stress has risen dramatically in nearly all the countries of this region (Picture 1).

Picture 1

Pic.1 Countries Facing Water Stress in 1995 and Projected in 2025

For the last two decades, increased water scarcity and globalization have contributed to the establishment of water as a new economic dimension. Independent states have started to consider fresh water as an economic good, which is becoming more and more valuable. With this new vision, a need for comprehensive governance of water resources has appeared. As most key freshwater basins are transboundary, this governance has passed from the national to the supra-national level. However the role of states in this governance is crucial and is determined by the strong interconnection between water resources, territory and sovereignty rights. It makes perfect sense that in competing for an economic resource, states may use both soft and hard power, that is apply both cultural and economic, and military instruments. Citing Sen “apolitical food problems do not exist”, Lopez-Gunn et al. expand this to the water problem as well. Actually, any state takes responsibility for providing national food and water security—and this makes its active participation in water and food markets unavoidable.

Carr, wrote that “the fundamental problem of world politics is to stimulate the peaceful evolution of relations between the satisfied and unsatisfied parts without armed force”. Relative to the water problem it means that in the water sector is unique, as the number of unsatisfied participants is constantly increasing, all peaceful forms of state interaction (such as the virtual water trade, technological trade, desalination initiatives, bulk water trade) represent a means to avoid a water conflict. Despite unprecedented global attention to water problems, there is not yet any international legislation framework on transboundary water use which could be applied as a base for global water governance (a UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses failed in 1997).

At the moment global consensus relates only to access to drinking water and sanitation. Specifically, sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015 was one of UN Millennium development goals. Moreover, the decade from 2005 to 2015 was chosen as a decade of action for “Water for life”. Some progress in this area has been achieved, mostly by increasing access to improved drinking water in rural areas of South and East Asia. At the same time, the water overexploitation issue as an urgent challenge for local water sustainability has strengthened in virtue of population and economic growth, the protein revolution and urbanization in developing countries.

2. The case study and basic assumptions

This paper has six sections. After Section 1 the introduction, Section 2 presents our research question, hypothesis and the choice of case study. Section 3 has the literature review, focused on the virtual water theory, its implications and critics, and on the interdependence theory which represents a broader framework of the virtual water concept.

Section 4 describes our research framework, the data used, and methods applied. Section 5 presents the most important results—the estimates and interpretation of intraregional virtual water trade flows within APR. Finally, Section 6 reviews our hypothesis and provides some discussion about future recommendations and forecasts related to regional development and water management. Some theoretical output is provided as well. As the water problem is closely tied both to theoretical concepts and to policy making, our conclusions reflect this dichotomy.

This paper examines primarily three research questions: 1) what is the position of the richest Eurasian water power (Russia) towards its APR neighbors in terms of virtual water trade? 2) how may virtual water trade become a source of regional long-term sustainability? and finally, 3) how Russian power in APR can be increased because of water resources?

As the research focuses on the virtual water trade it is important to clarify what we mean by this term. The virtual water concept was introduced by Allan and represents virtual water trade (also known as trade in embedded or embodied water) that refers to the hidden flow of water if food or other commodities are traded from one place to another. For arid regions imports of virtual water (mainly through agriculture which accounts up to 80% of water use) could be an efficient instrument to decrease local demand and reallocate water to competitively more favourable sectors, i.e. to mitigate water stress. The potential volume of water savings due to the trade of water-intensive goods is large: for instance, to produce 1 ton of soybeans requires 4124 m3 of water in India, 2030 in Indonesia, 1076 in Brazil. For meat production, the water component differs even more: 1 ton of beef needs 11681 m3 in the Netherlands, 21028 m3 in Russia and 37762 m3 in Mexico.

There are two main tracks of how the virtual water concept can be applied. According to the first understanding it addresses exports from water abundant to water deficient countries, such as from Russia to APR. According to the second understanding virtual water concept suggests exports from countries where water efficiency is higher (i.e. they use less water to produce a same amount of goods). The second case creates direct savings in water, but on a regional scale, the first option is more sustainable. Our research hypothesis refers to this paradox. We suggest that virtual water trade in some cases may improve water economy on a global scale but worsen long-term regional water security status and increase the level of water stress in particular areas. This paradox grows from the fact that the water problem when considered globally, has a deeper regional or local influence.

Case study justification

Russia ranks second in the world after Brazil by renewable water resources, while the list of developing countries suffering from water scarcity, includes some of Russia’s immediate neighbours including Central Asian states, China and Mongolia (Picture 2). In China alone, a total of 560 rivers are drying out; the Yellow River failed to reach its mouth in 1997. (See Appendix A for detailed data on available water resources (Table A1) and structure of water use (Table A2) in top-10 world water possessors and users).

Picture 2

Pic.2 Global physical and economic water scarcity

China ranks sixth in the world in terms of available water resources but has the largest population and second largest economy and therefore faces the acute water stress. Available water resources are insufficient for the growing needs of agriculture, industrial production and the energy sector. There is a similar situation in some other APR countries where growing water use in agriculture and industries producing foodstuffs and commodities provides additional load on limited water resources. In the political sense, there is clear demand from China, ASEAN countries (whose dependence on China is growing), Japan and Korea Republic, for additional sources of food imports and diversification of suppliers for ensuring national food security.

First published in 2014, CPC Central document №1, declared the strengthening of national food security and agriculture support in the deteriorating environmental conditions as China’s top priority. ASEAN since 2009 has been operating a four-year plan to ensure food security: ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework and Strategic Plan of Action on Food Security in ASEAN Region. The Japanese Government in 2010 made the New Basic Plan for Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas, where the goal of self-improving food security from 40 to 50% by 2020 was set. The Republic of Korea, which imports more than 90% of its food, has invested in agro-colonization: a Korean food-importing conglomerate operating in 16 countries.

At the same time the Asian part of Russia is the most water-abundant region on the whole Asian continent. 72% of all the Russia’s freshwater resources are located in Siberia and the Russian Far East. The lake Baikal alone contains about 20% of the global fresh water. Since Soviet times the gap in water abundance between Siberia and neighbouring countries has been frequently used to justify plans of water exports from this Russian region. These plans have never been executed because of the technical complexity and economical irrationality (for example costs of the Ob river transfer to Central Asia are estimated in at least $140 bn). These factors and the large potential environmental damage make any projects of water exports from Russia utopian. Yet Russia may use its water abundance by taking on the leading role in the market of virtual water by exporting agricultural and other water-retaining products.

Russia’s opportunities for exporting virtual water strengthened with the ‘turn to the East’ in Russian foreign policy. Developing exchange and cooperation with Asian countries, economic integration with APR, the rapid export-oriented development of the Far Eastern Federal District have been among the priorities in Russia’s policy agenda for the last few years (and especially after the crisis in relations with the Western countries). Vast opportunities to produce water-intensive products represent one of the most appropriate foundations for the integration of Russia into APR.

Russia and APR represent a good case to check the main hypothesis of this study. In this case, we avoid the hegemony issue as neither Russia nor China can be defined as a regional water hegemony. We investigate the region where water stress represents one of the biggest challenges for development. We deal with the region which disposes the biggest world reserves for a considerable increase of agricultural and industrial production—Siberia.

Full paper — The virtual water of Siberia and the Russian Far East for the Asia-Pacific Region