The integration of water footprints and virtual water flows allows the mapping of the links between production, trade, and consumption and could potentially help to alleviate water scarcity and improve water management. We evaluated the water footprints and virtual water flows of crop production, consumption, and trade and their influencing factors in the Hetao irrigation district in China for 1960–2010. The water footprint of crop production and the export of virtual water fluctuated but tended to increase during this period and were influenced mainly by agricultural factors such as crop yield, irrigation efficiency, and area sown. The water footprint of crop consumption and the import of virtual water increased during 1960–1979 and decreased during 1980–2010 and were influenced by socio-economic factors such as total population, the retail-price index, and the proportion of the population in urban areas. Most of the water footprint of production was exported to other areas, which added to the pressure on local water systems. The import of virtual water led to a saving of water for the Hetao irrigation district, while its share of the water footprint of consumption has decreased significantly since 1977. An increase in irrigation efficiency can alleviate water scarcity, and its application should be coupled with measures that constrain the continued expansion of agriculture. Full-cost pricing of irrigation water was an effective policy tool for its management. Re-shaping regional water-production and water-trade nexuses by changing crop structures could provide alternative opportunities for addressing the problems of local water scarcity, but the trade-offs involved should first be assessed.
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