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Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet's Most Precious Resource

Mark Newton

21st July, 2011

According to Tony Allan, overuse of water is an environmental crisis in the making. So why, asks Mark Newton, aren't we doing something about it?

Water is becoming an increasingly precious resource and as the global population grows, so will demand. Add to this a future dictated by the brutal effects of climate change, throw intensive farming into the mix; and the result is that water consumption and conservation will prove to be one of the defining issues of our time. With that in mind, Virtual Water takes a very different, and somewhat revolutionary, look at water usage.  Its aim is simple: to shock and to force a re-evaluation of the way we use water.

To do this, Allan introduces the titular concept, Virtual Water, by way of an illuminating example. How much water do we think goes into a cup of coffee? Is it what we pour from the kettle? Allan claims that 140 litres of water goes into making a single cup of coffee, and then explains how it is the hidden ‘virtual water’ that is at the root of the problem. Virtual water includes ‘the amount of water used in growing, producing, packaging and shipping the beans that make the coffee.’ To this, 140 litres for our coffee, we can add around 80 litres for toast, 120 litres for eggs, 240 litres for milk and so on. All in all, breakfast consists of 1100 litres - around three bathtubs of water.  Suddenly, water conservation starts to look like a pretty good idea after all.

What’s more, overuse of water can’t be tackled by simply placing a brick in the cistern: patterns of consumption need to change and that’s not a simple task in the western world. A staggering amount of water, for example, goes into producing meat, which therefore means that altering our diets will have to be part of the solution. Yet how likely is this in the age of global meat production? Once it’s acknowledged that our real water footprint is hidden in food production, that it’s virtual, Allan goes on to explain just what this means in terms of agriculture and the global market. For the rest of the book, he speaks in terms of blue water [‘flows through the landscape into rivers, lakes, aquifers’] and green water [‘infiltrates into soil and is take up by natural vegetation and crops’], and of the processes in which the different types are used, notably agriculture.

Agriculture is by far and away the largest drain on water resources. The mammoth subsidies received by American and European farmers cause huge distortions in global trade; a practice that looks worse still in the context of water resources. Allen goes on to unleash a scathing critique of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy [CAP], its wastage and its impact on virtual water. The export trade in food also creates a new concept: that of water deficits, surpluses and water security. Countries that are in water deficit are often major food importers. As Allen explains, we depend on those countries with a water surplus to ensure that our populations are well fed. Without the ‘virtual water trade,’ there would be war. It becomes impossible to look at international markets without becoming infuriated by their failure to recognise the importance of this precious, albeit invisible, resource. What this market failure does is delay any political solutions, as the invisible trade masks the need to act.

From here, Allen takes a look at the various water policies; from Spain and the UK to the USA and China, where consciously controversial, Allan claims that the family-planning laws of one child per family have calmed a population explosion that could have placed far greater demands on the world’s virtual water resources. Other solutions are offered, of course, and farmers are placed at the heart of the issue. They are the individuals who can act as stewards while it is governments who can control price incentives for less water-intensive crops, and offer long term stability.

In an effort to sound chatty, Allan does have a tendency to meander tangentially on various issues but that does not detract from a lively piece of writing. Virtual water is a concept that could easily have been presented in a far more complex manner, so it is to his credit that the subject has been rendered accessible. Virtual Water is not a book aimed at academics; it is aimed at the layman, at you and me, or at those who might influence policy. The concept is one that should make us rethink our lifestyles as individuals and how governments can begin to prepare for a potentially devastating environmental challenge that we will soon have to face.

Virtual Water: Tackling the Threat to Our Planet's Most Precious Resource by Tony Allan (£12.99, I.B.Tauris) is available from Amazon

Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs about all sorts of things at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN

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