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Virtual water: tackling the threat to our planet's most precious resource, by Tony Allen

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Virtual water: tackling the threat to
our planet's most precious resource,
by Tony Allen
J. Jackson Ewing
Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies S. Rajaratnam
School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University,
Available online: 24 Nov 2011
To cite this article: J. Jackson Ewing (2011): Virtual water: tackling the threat to our planet's
most precious resource, by Tony Allen, Water International, 36:7, 948-950
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Water International
Vol. 36, No. 7, November 2011, 948–950
Book review
Virtual water: tackling the threat to our planet’s most precious resource,byTony
Allen, London, I.B. Taurus, 2011, 384 pp, £12.99 (paper), ISBN 9781845119843
In Virtual water, Tony Allen offers a timely, compelling and highly accessible book that
adeptly positions freshwater within key global systems. From his confrontational opening
salvo on the 1,100-litre English breakfast, Allen challenges readers to consider society’s
relationship with water along with their own complicity in the world’s pervasive water
challenges. The foundational theses of Virtual water are at times complex and certainly
multifaceted, but may be summarized as the notion that water is embedded in a range of
products that we consume, that its presence often remains hidden, and that the trade of
water-intensive goods is tantamount to the trade of water resources. Food is far and away
the most s ignificant such water-intensive commodity (a point on which Allen repeatedly
reminds the reader), and agriculture is therefore ubiquitous to all of the major arguments
in Virtual water.
The first component of Allen’s argument reveals the capacity for virtual water to con-
ceal the presence of water in food products, and as a result, mask the true footprint of
water from economists, politicians and consumers alike. This is possible not least of all
because of the importance of “green water”, or water that is present within soils, for agri-
culture. Unlike the “blue water” of the global surface or the water table, green water defies
large-scale manipulation through engineered projects, is present in soils due to the pres-
ence of localized rainfall and, as Allen consistently intimates, is the key resource needed
for a majority of the world’s food production.
This water becomes increasingly “virt ual” as a result of the trade of food commodi-
ties that it underwrites. This trade, as Allen writes, has “obscured the relationship between
society and its water resources” (p. 33), and has widened the cognitive chasm separating
food consumers from the vital water systems upon which they depend. As an unapolo-
getic Malthusian, Allen argues that this chasm is dangerous and that contemporary trends
in demography and consumption patterns threaten to outstrip global water supplies and
plunge vulnerable societies further into the realm of dire water scarcity.
Just as the reader begins to grasp the dangers of virtual water myopia, however, Allen
shifts away from his pejorative tone to point out that the virtual water trade (that is, the
trade of food from the water-abundant to the water-scarce) has been and will continue to be
essential for managing water challenges. Virtual water processes can save vital resources
and help both water scarce and water abundant actors through creating symbiotic possi-
bilities. Allen goes further during his subsequent Brazilian case study to declare that the
food commodity trade “ensures global water security ... prevents water wars, starvation
and death ... promotes healthy economies, international cooperation and has the potential
to maximize the efficiency of our planet’s water resources” (p. 233). Virtual water thus
has, Allen contends, a “light side” that secures and helps save water and a “dark side” that
obscures, deludes and slows water reform (p. 80). Upon illuminating the dualistic nature
ISSN 0250-8060 print/ISSN 1941-1707 online
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Water International 949
of virtual water, Allen is free to explore the book’s eight differentiated case studies. These
cases are the highlights of Virtual water and, far from being of interest only to those with a
stake in the countries under exploration, these sections see Allen extrapolate his arguments
more fully than at any other juncture.
Virtual water is not without its difficulties. Some discerning readers will be troubled by
the lack of referencing, the essential outsourcing of any virtual water methodological dis-
cussion to datasets by Arjen Hoekstra and Ashok Chapagain, and the conversational, often
biographical and sometimes repetitive tone of the book (Hoekstra and Chapagain 2008;
see also Chapagain and Hoekstra [2008]). There is no dispute that virtual water calcula-
tions can quickly become very complex (Liu et al. 2009), and readers on the lookout for
alarmism may ask wantingly how Allen has come to tell them that their glass of milk has
240 litres of embedded water in it, and if this figure is contingent upon the type of milk in
question, the location of the cow, whether this water will be counted again if the milk cow
becomes beef, and so forth. However, digressions into rigorous methodological discussions
would not fit the accessible nature of this work, and Allen was clearly deliberate rather than
indolent in his decision to exclude them.
Somewhat more egregious was Allen’s difficulty in reconciling his thoughts on poli-
tics and politicians. Politicians are portrayed at various points, largely homogenously, as
working from constructed realities, consistently seeking short-term gains at the cost of
long-term strategy and unwilling to face down the hidden challenges put forth by virtual
water. Allen attempts to soften these critiques by marvelling at the difficulties faced by
politicians and emphasizing the importance of respecting the constrictions within which
politicians work. Some will find this softening disingenuous and the reality is that Allen
is hard on the policy makers of the water world. Despite his efforts to hedge, justify
and dichotomize arguments on the science–politics connection, Allen’s frustration with
politicians and political processes repeatedly comes to the surface.
Others will no doubt take issue with some details of Virtual water, such as Allen’s lion-
ization of China’s one-child policy and its water strategies more generally, his rosy picture
of social progress in Vietnam, the conspicuous absence of fish from dietary discussions, or
his vitriolic condemnation of agricultural subsidies in developed countries. None of these
issues however, whether viewed as problematic or not, should negate the overarching value
of Virtual water as none of them undermine the central premise of the book: that water
requires more mature valuation to preserve vital resources and protect the interest of the
water insecure. Allen returns forcefully to these points as he draws the work to a close.
Towards a new valuation paradigm
Allen concludes Virtual water by summatively calling for greater cognisance of the water
requirements of consumer products, the realization that these requirements have impli-
cations for global and local water systems, and the acceptance that water usage should
be factored more overtly and appropriately into the products which it begets. Moreover,
such shifts require participation along the continuum of water stakeholders, from scientists,
engineers and farmers finding ways to use water more efficiently, to government officials
creating responsible water policies, to consumers altering diets to be less water intensive.
Allen is supporting new approaches throughout this continuum for valuing commodities
in ways that better respect the environmental “externalities” that are necessary for their
Downloaded by [Rajaratnam School of Intl Studies], [John Jackson Ewing] at 19:15 24 November 2011
950 Book review
production”. Virtual water thus fits more neatly into on-going discourses on paying for eco-
logical services, whether they come from forests, biodiversity, rivers or other environmental
systems, than it does within the wider literature on the contemporary geopolitics of water.
In fact, Allen makes the case early and often that the current water conundrum results pri-
marily from water foolishly being exploited as a non-excludable and non-rivalrous public
good, when in fact it is anything but.
It is in this sphere of environmental valuation that Virtual water makes its most impor-
tant contributions. There are growing signs that traditional and arguably simplistic modes
of commodity valuation are changing, and that responding to the environmental challenges
of the twenty-first century will require paradigmatic shifts in where environmental systems
reside within the global economy. Perhaps nowhere is this reality more apparent than in
the freshwater sector, and those seeking strategies for a more appropriate representation
of water’s economic relevance could certainly benefit from reading this latest contribution
from Tony Allen.
Allen, T., 2011 Water: tackling the threat to our planet’s most precious resource.NewYork:
I. B. Tauris.
Chapagain, A.K. and Hoekstra A.Y., 2008. The global component of freshwater demand and supply:
an assessment of virtual water flows between nations as a result of trade in agricultural and
industrial products. Water International, 33 (1), 19–32.
Hoekstra, A.Y. and Chapagain, A.K., 2008. Globalization of water: sharing the planet’s freshwater
resources. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Liu, Junguo, Zehnder, A.J.B. and Yang, H., 2009. Global consumptive water use for crop production:
the importance of green water and virtual water. Water Resources Research, 45, 1–15.
J. Jackson Ewing
Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
© 2011, J. Jackson Ewing
Downloaded by [Rajaratnam School of Intl Studies], [John Jackson Ewing] at 19:15 24 November 2011
... Virtual water trade, i.e., trading water embedded in commodities, is another way of overcoming global and regional water scarcity (Allan 2011). Water-rich and climatically favorable countries can export water virtually through the export of energy and food, capitalizing on location efficiency, and judiciously using water. ...
Abstract Tana sub-basin receives rainfall during summer as a primary source of stream flow. This research aimed to relate the catchment characteristics with hydrology of headwater catchments. Rainfall-runoff and sediment yield modeling in relation to catchment characteristics was conducted. Land use, soil, digital elevation model (DEM), precipitation, water quality and quantity were used in the analysis. ERDAS, GIS and HYDATA software were used to evaluate the physical catchment characteristics and meteorological data. Model parameters were calibrated using observed data of 2009–2011 and validated over the period of 2012. Particle swarm optimization was used to determine optimal model parameters. The model parameters were related to catchment characteristics using linear regression in a statistical software. Normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) and hypso�metric integral are directly proportional to direct runoff parameter C. Likewise, the baseflow model parameter b is positively affected by elongation ratio and average slope, and NDVI shows negative effect. Finally, regional model for the hydrology of the headwater catchments was developed.
... Virtual water trade, i.e., trading water embedded in commodities, is another way of overcoming global and regional water scarcity (Allan 2011). Water-rich and climatically favorable countries can export water virtually through the export of energy and food, capitalizing on location efficiency, and judiciously using water. ...
Floods are among the most severe hydrological extremes, in terms of social impact and potential economic damage. In this study, flood variability and associated impacts and managements are investigated in the Wabi Shebele RiverWabi Shebele River Basin. In early twenty-first century, floods indicate increasing trend in magnitude and frequency in the entire basin. For longest period, 1981–2010, the annual maximum flood discharge shows upward trends in upper and middle catchments while downward trends are in eastern and lower catchments of Wabi Shebele Basin. Among these, annual maximum discharge shows a significant increasing trend in middle catchments (i.e. Erer at Hamaro and Gololcha at Wabi junction) and significant decreasing trend in Fafen watersheds at Jijiga and Kebridehar gauging stations. Flood variability and socio-economic damages follow similar trend tendency in the basin. Like variability analysis result in early twenty-first century, the number of peoples affected indicates increasing trend in study area. In such case, one must shift from defensive action against hazards to management of the risk considering the evolution and trends of floods. Due to its nature, floods in transboundary riverTransboundary rivers basin have transboundary consequence which indicates need of cooperation in between riparian countries for Integrated Flood ManagementIntegrated flood management (IMF). IMF is approach which adopts the best mix of both structural and non-structural strategies by ensuring a participatory approach and adopting integrated hazard management approaches.
... Água virtual baseia-se no volume de água que é incorporada em uma variedade de processos e produtos que consumimos, onde sua presença frequentemente permanece oculta (EWING, 2011 de Penman (1956). ...
Full-text available
PEGADA HÍDRICA DO SISTEMA DE ABASTECIMENTO DE ÁGUA DO MUNICÍPIO DE SÃO CARLOS – SP DAIANE FERREIRA CAMPOS1 [1] Programa de Pós Graduação em Engenharia Hidráulica e Saneamento, Escola de Engenharia de São Carlos / Universidade de São Paulo, Av. Trab. São Carlense, 400 - Centro, CEP 13566-590, São Carlos – SP, Brasil, email: 1 RESUMO Os sistemas de saneamento estão entre os principais interconectores entre água e sociedade. Sendo perceptível que quanto maior a compreensão do recurso hídrico dentro do sistema, melhor será o gerenciamento. Seguindo esta dialética, sabe-se que o consumo de água vai além do que realmente é calculado, podendo ser analisado também, pela vertente de água virtual. Portanto, o objetivo deste trabalho é apresentar uma análise da água virtual do sistema de abastecimento de água do município de São Carlos no estado de São Paulo. Logo, a estimativa de água virtual do abastecimento urbano de água foi calculada segundo o Manual de Pegada Hídrica. Sendo utilizado os dados de vazões médias de água tratada e distribuída pelas duas unidades de tratamento de água disponibilizados pelo SAAE (Sistema Autônomo de Água e Esgoto) do município de São Carlos, em seguida foi calculado o volume de água evaporado pelo método de Penman. Após contabilizar, resultou que a pegada hídrica do sistema de abastecimento foi estimada em 22.860.960,64 m³ por ano, o que representa uma razão de 1,44 m³ entre a água virtual e a água real, de maneira que, a evaporação contribuiu com 2.320,0 m³ por ano e as perdas de distribuição representaram 7.795.587,57 m³/ano de água virtual. Palavras-chave: Pegada Hídrica; Sistemas de Saneamento; Água Virtual. CAMPOS, D. F. WATER FOOTPRINT OF THE WATER SUPPLY SYSTEM OF SÃO CARLOS - SP 2 ABSTRACT Sanitation systems are among the main interconnectors between water and society. It is noticeable that the greater the understanding of the water resource within the system, the better the management. Following this dialectic, water consumption goes beyond what is actually calculated and can also be analyzed by the virtual water aspect. Therefore, this work aims to present an analysis of the virtual water of the water supply system in the municipality of São Carlos in the state of São Paulo. Therefore, the estimate of virtual water for urban water supply was calculated according to the Water Footprint Manual. Using data from average water flows treated and distributed by the two water treatment units provided by SAAE-São Carlos, the evaporated water volume was then calculated using the Penman method. After accounting, it turned out that the water footprint of the supply system was estimated at 22,860,960.64 m³ per year, which represents a ratio of 1.44 between virtual water and real water, so that evaporation contributed to 2,320.0 m³ per year and distribution losses represented 7,795,587.57 m³/year of virtual water. Keywords: Water Footprint; Sanitation Systems; Virtual Water.
... The use of surface water has been considered the primary issue related to water resource management [57], and contaminated irrigation water has been identified as a cause for several outbreaks of foodborne illness [15]. As previously mentioned, several factors, such as geographical location, land use, rainfall, temperature, seasonality, and water physicochemical characteristics can directly affect the microbial quality of water used in agricultural practices, which greatly impacts the risk of foodborne pathogen contamination on fresh produce. ...
Full-text available
Surface water poses a great risk to fruit and vegetable crops when contaminated by foodborne pathogens. Several factors impact the microbial quality of surface waters and increase the risk of produce contamination. Therefore, evaluating the factors associated with the prevalence of pathogenic microorganisms in agricultural water sources is critical to determine and establish preventive actions that may minimize the incidence of foodborne outbreaks associated with contaminated production water. In the Southeastern U.S. environmental factors such as rainfall, temperature, and seasonal variations have been associated with the prevalence of pathogens or microbial indicators of fecal contamination in water. Also, the geographical location of the irrigation sources as well as surrounding activities and land use play an important role on the survival and prevalence of pathogenic bacteria. Therefore, these factors may be determinants useful in the evaluation of production water quality and may help to preemptively identify scenarios or hazards associated with the incidence of foodborne pathogenic microorganisms.
... In the broadest sense, having control over water is partly a matter of having the purchasing power to acquire food and other products containing it. While debates about water ownership focus on infrastructure and supply, it is important to remember that wealthy societies often depend heavily on imported goods and thus embodied water from poorer countries (Allan, 2011). Water in arid areas is used to produce goods that require major amounts of water, to be shipped to markets in more temperate climes. ...
It is 60 years since Karl Wittfogel highlighted a key relationship between political power and the ownership and control of water. Subsequent studies have suggested, commensurately, that exclusion from the ownership of essential resources represents a fundamental form of disenfranchisement - a loss of democratic involvement in societal direction. Several areas of theoretical development have illuminated these issues. Anthropologists have explored the recursive relationship between political arrangements and cosmological belief systems. Narrow legal definitions of property have been challenged through the consideration of more diverse ways of owning and controlling resources. Analyses of material culture have shown how it extends human agency, as well as having agentive capacities itself; and explorations of infrastructures have highlighted their role in composing socio-technical and political relations. Such approaches are readily applied to water and the material culture through which it is controlled and used. Drawing on historical and ethnographic research on water in Australia and the UK, this paper traces changing relationships between cosmological beliefs, infrastructure and political arrangements over time. It suggests that a current trend towards privatised, transnational water ownership potentially opens the door to the emergence of new 'despotic regimes'.
... The concept of the virtual water trade was initially proposed by Tony Allan suggesting that the surprising lack of water conflicts in the water-scarce region (Arab world) was due to increase in reliance on food imports, resulting in domestic water savings and minimum friction between neighboring countries (concerning water). Virtual water in most of the water-scarce countries acts as a major relief [11,12]. The idea quickly gained popularity among academics and was extended to another level by Arjen Hoekstra and his team [13]. ...
Full-text available
This paper analyzes the relationship between virtual water and domestic food-water security in Qatar. The total virtual water traded between 1998 and 2015 was 24,470 Mm³, average of 1,360 Mm³y–1. Green water and blue water account 69 and 31% of total virtual water import. On average, 70% of the total water requirement is from virtual water import and Qatar’s dependence on virtual water for agricultural products increased to 90% in 2015. The paper examines the virtual water flow from the major river basins in India, Pakistan, Australia and groundwater aquifers in Saudi Arabia and policy implications of virtual water on food security of Qatar.
Transboundary waters account for a significant portion of the global freshwater resource. As such, effective water resource management should ideally have transboundary water management at its core. Despite this, however, two-thirds of the world’s transboundary riversTransboundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework. Nonetheless, numerous international treaties, laws, and principles have existed throughout history to govern transboundary water sharingWater sharing. The principle of limited territorial sovereignty forms the basis for modern customary water laws. There are notable widely accepted transboundary water management rules and principles based on the prinicple of limited territorial soverginity such as the Helsinki rulesHelsinki Rules, the U.N. 1997 conventionU.N. 1997 Convention, and the Cooperative FrameworkCooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) in the case of the Nile basinNile Basin. However, the contextualization and quantifications of such rule to useable frameworks are still mostly lacking. This study outlines the evolution of transboundary water-sharingWater sharing rules and principles and the history of water sharing in the Nile basinNile Basin. It then presents factors suggested by international water-sharing principles to determine equitable useEquitable use. The study contextualizes, quantifies, and weighs these factors for the Nile basinNile Basin to evaluate different scenarios, which can be a base for fair and equitable water sharingWater sharing. Finally, the authors forward possible recommendations for equitable and sustainable water use in the basin to move forward collectively.
Continued, accelerating water inequalities and conflicts in the postcolonial world cannot be properly grasped without a thorough understanding of colonialism and its legacies. At the same time, water as a resource provides an immensely useful lens for understanding the intricacies and the dynamics of the colonial and postcolonial eras, in general terms, and in the particular historical instance of Malawi examined here. This essay draws on a range of literatures—social theory, political ecology, history, anthropology, sociology, geography, and so on—to demonstrate that struggles over water and other natural resources in the postcolonial world are situated within wider global structures and relationships of power. Starting with a discussion of theoretical approaches to water, the essay goes on to examine the processes of state formation in Sub‐Saharan Africa, and explore the intersectionality of the contemporary lived experience of class, gender, race, and ethnicity in this region. It ends with a consideration of social differentiation, land tenure, degradation of water resources and natural resource conflict in Malawi. Traversing across humanities and social science disciplines, this essay uses water as a means of cutting a path through world historical questions on the articulations between the global and the local in the present era. This article is categorized under: • Human Water > Water Governance • Human Water > Water as Imagined and Represented
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The paper presents the local blue water footprint of tourism on the islands of Cres and Lošinj (Northern Adriatic, Croatia). The paper contains a case study of the specific environmental impact caused by exploitation of Lake Vrana to satisfy the needs of the population and economies of Cres and Lošinj. The hypothesis this paper is based on maintains that the local blue water footprint has predominantly been caused by tourism and that it has demonstrates annual fluctuations, closely linked to the number of tourists and non-residents present on the islands in question. The blue water footprints of residents, non-residents, and tourists were examined separately in the course of studying the environmental burden. To verify and compare the results for Cres and Lošinj, they were viewed in relation to similar tourist regions in Croatia (Crikvenica) and Spain (Mallorca). The paper is theoretically focused on singling out partial tourism footprints, while its practical aspect is visible in the calculation of the local blue water footprint, as the foundation for creating sustainable development strategies and spatial plans based on the real impact of human actions on the environment.
p>International trade is increasingly transporting 'hidden' resources and environmental factors from one country to another. For example, the water used to produce a spear of asparagus eaten in London might come from irrigation in South America. Similarly, pollution generated in China might be traceable to consumer demand in the United States. Carole Dalin et al . now extend this idea to the non-renewable groundwater that is consumed for agricultural trade. They find that 11 per cent of groundwater extraction is linked to agricultural trade, with Pakistan, the United States and India accounting for two-thirds of the global totals. The research reveals the degree to which food consumption in one country can lead to groundwater depletion in others, highlighting the need to better consider issues of sustainability and equity in the international food trade.</p
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Where the river basin is generally seen as the appropriate unit for analysing freshwater availability and use, this paper shows that it becomes increasingly important to put freshwater issues in a global context. International trade in commodities implies flows of 'virtual water' over large distances, where virtual water should be understood as the volume of water required to produce a commodity. Virtual water flows between nations have been estimated from statistics on international product trade and the virtual water content per product in the exporting country. With increasing globalization of trade, global water interdependencies and overseas externalities are likely to increase. At the same time liberalization of trade creates opportunities to increase physical water savings.
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Over the last 4 decades the use of blue water has received increasing attention in water resources research, but little attention has been paid to the quantification of green water in food production and food trade. In this paper, we estimate both the blue and green water components of consumptive water use (CWU) for a wide range of agricultural crops, including seven cereal crops, cassava, cotton, groundnuts, potatoes, pulses, rapeseed, soybeans, sugar beets, sugarcane, and sunflower, with a spatial resolution of 30 arc min on the land surface. The results show that the global CWU of these crops amounted to 3823 km3 a−1 for the period 1998–2002. More than 80% of this amount was from green water. Around 94% of the world crop-related virtual water trade has its origin in green water, which generally constitutes a low-opportunity cost of green water as opposed to blue water. High levels of net virtual water import (NVWI) generally occur in countries with low CWU on a per capita basis, where a virtual water strategy is an attractive water management option to compensate for domestic water shortage for food production. NVWI is constrained by income; low-income countries generally have a low level of NVWI. Strengthening low-income countries economically will allow them to develop a virtual water strategy to mitigate malnutrition of their people.
Globalization of Water is a first-of-its-kind review of the critical relationship between globalization and sustainable water management. It explores the impact of international trade on local water depletion and pollution and identifies "water dependent" nations. Examines the critical link between water management and international trade, considering how local water depletion and pollution are often closely tied to the structure of the global economy Offers a consumer-based indicator of each nation's water use: the water footprint Questions whether trade can enhance global water use efficiency, or whether it simply shifts the environmental burden to a distant location Highlights the hidden link between national consumption and the use of water resources across the globe, identifying the threats facing 'water dependent' countries worldwide Provides a state-of-the-art review and in-depth data source for a new field of knowledge.
Water: tackling the threat to our planet's most precious resource
  • T Allen
Allen, T., 2011 Water: tackling the threat to our planet's most precious resource. New York: I. B. Tauris.
NTS) Studies S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University
  • J Jackson Ewing Centre
  • Security
J. Jackson Ewing Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Email: © 2011, J. Jackson Ewing Downloaded by [] at 20:17 14 June 2014
Ewing Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University
  • J Jackson
J. Jackson Ewing Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University, Singapore Email: