ECLA Annual Conference Lecture: Tony Allan on ‘Global systems enable local security: virtual water – the water, food and trade nexus brings water security and sustainability’

Tony Allan
Tony Allan

ECLA was particularly honoured to receive Tony Allan to deliver a Annual Conference lecture. Just over a month before his arrival, Professor Allan was awarded the 2008 Water Laureate prize by the Stockholm Water Committee for his ‘pioneering and long lasting work in education and raising the awareness internationally of interdisciplinary relationships between agricultural production, water use, economies and political processes’. A significant part of Professor Allan’s contribution to water awareness is his discovery of ‘virtual water’, a concept which gets to the heart of complicated ecological and geographical, political and economic dilemmas. It was virtual water which formed the backbone of his lecture.

When we think of water scarcity, the most powerful images that come to mind are those of people dying of dehydration or of unsanitary conditions and water-borne diseases. This, however, as Professor Allan illustrates, is only the tip of the global water scarcity iceberg. The most significant sources of water are in fact invisible. Soil water, which hydrates the land, may not be drinkable, but it allows a country to grow crops. Countries which have to use drinking water to hydrate the land have less for their people to drink. Food commodities are also crucial, for the water quantities required to produce these commodities are substantial. For example, each individual needs access to only 1m3 (1,000 litres) of drinking water per year, plus another 200m3 for washing and work. A massive amount of individual needs are hidden in food: each individual requires a 1000m3 of virtual water in food for the most basic sustenance each year. This represents the amount of water needed to produce the food that he or she consumes. What is more, the amount of water required to support our nutritional needs depends very much on the diet we adopt. A vegetarian diet requires only half the amount of water in food (2,500 litres per day, approx.) of a red-meat intensive diet (over 5,000 litres per day).

Using virtual water models, Professor Allan addressed the interrelatedness of water to food, trade, and global and economic security and sustainability, and the need to maintain balanced relationships between these different elements. Encouragingly, Allan predicts that with prudent resource management and reallocation, the world’s water resources are sufficient to sustain its future population. He suggests that at the heart of this nexus lie three virtuous ‘marriages’: making water with clean energy, making clean energy with freshwater, and using global trade in energy and commodities to solve local water scarcity problems. The task then is to facilitate these marriages and avoid the two ‘funerals’, of climate change, which damages the atmosphere’s production of water, and of water resources, in which water is squandered through careless management, ignoring the underlying fundamentals of the ecosystem.

Professor Allan’s concept of ‘virtual water’ radicalizes our notions of water needs, helping to explain how relatively rich economies, such as Israel or Egypt are able to overcome water shortages through trade. While trade may give a country the wealth it needs to import its water deficit in commodities, water-short countries exporting water-intensive foodstuffs may be subject to criticism if they fail to supply their own citizens with the drinking water and sanitation required to meet their basic needs. The power and success of Professor Allan’s virtual water model lies in permitting political economies and societies to re-allocate their water needs in such a way that is politically feasible. Invisible and silent, encouraging peaceful trade relations and ecological sustainability, the insight of virtual water lies in Professor Allan’s understanding that vexed global problems demand politically astute answers.

Tony Allan is Professor of Geography at King’s College London and at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is a member of the KCL/SOAS Water Research Group. Winner of the 2008 Stockholm Water Laureate Prize, his research focuses on the social and political contexts which influence and usually determine water use and water policy. A particular focus of his research is in the Middle East and North Africa.

by Samantha Williams (’08, United Kingdom)

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