Video: Professor Tony Allan on virtual water

Embedded below is a video of Professor Tony Allan talking about his 2008 Stockholm Water Prize winning concept ‘virtual water‘. Prof Allan talks briefly about how long the concept has taken to become widely accepted and used since he conceived it in 1993. He also mentions how he did not originally publish it because of a particular journal reviewer’s comments that the virtual water idea was ‘silly’! Prof Allan goes on to discuss how virtual water – or embedded water to use the term he originally preferred – is conceptually similar in some respects to embedded energy. He then talks about how he was inspired to conceive of virtual water – specifically in the form of food importing – as a rather elegant answer to the question of why there have been so few ‘water wars’ – particularly in the Middle East.

The video also covers the relative water footprint of mainly-beef and primarily vegetarian diets. Prof Allan closes with some short comments on what he calls ‘constructed knowledge’ – the knowledge a culture, community or society has built up over many years and which represents its taken-for-granted assumptions about various things. He uses the example of Egypt’s continued reliance upon the Nile to illustrate his point.

Here is the video below:

It’s worth mentioning that this video is just a short excerpt of a much longer lecture that Prof Allan kindly gave on a water and sanitation planning and policy course led by Professor Dale Whittington at the University of Manchester. In the full lecture Prof Allan discussed a very wide range of issues and went into far more detail than it was possible to show here in this heavily abridged clip. In particular, sadly it was not possible to include in this excerpt Prof Allan’s discussion of what he calls ‘small’ water and ‘big’ water.

For Prof Allan, ‘small’ water is used for drinking, cooking, cleaning and other domestic or industrial purposes – including what we use in the course of our jobs and in receiving most of the services we enjoy. In essence it is the world’s ‘non-food’ related water use. By contrast, he calls the world’s food-growing uses ‘big’ water. ‘Big’ water represents the overwhelming majority of the world’s water use. In his lecture Prof Allan stressed the importance both of farming and of farmers as stewards of this ‘big’ water. Farmers – if rewarded and incentivised appropriately – can make huge leaps in the water productivity of farming, according to Prof Allan. The positive role that farmers can play in ‘big’ water resource management needs to be further stressed in national and world water policies, he strongly believes.

Personally I feel truly privileged to have met and heard Prof Allan as part of Dale’s course. I was particularly impressed by Prof Allan’s optimism about what can be achieved in the world of water – even in the face of some potentially depressing water supply and demand trends. It was also clear that Prof Allan’s ‘virtual water’ concept has inspired others – such as Hoekstra and Chapagain and their water footprinting efforts – to make constructive contributions to world water policy debates and discussions.

Lastly, a quick technical note about the sound quality of the above clip of Prof Allan. You may find that you need to turn your volume/speakers up to catch everything that is being said (or alternatively you may wish to watch it several times…). The lecture was given in an acoustically-challenging room in the presence of a very anti-social digital projector! I have treated the sound as best as I could to reduce the unpleasant effect of this noise, but the audio is still not ideal, for which I apologise!

Duncan Thomas


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