Interviewing Tony Allan about ‘virtual water’

Last week my colleague Professor Dale Whittington and I went to London to film interviews with Professor Tony Allan, emeritus professor at both the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and King’s College London. This was a bit of an addendum to our Part 2 water MOOC – one of the interviews we hadn’t managed to do in time for our launch a few weeks back.

Photo: Prof Tony Allan interviewed by Prof Dale Whittington at the RSA; filming by the University of Manchester media team.

Dale has known Prof Allan for about 40 years. They met due to both working on hydro-politics of the River Nile in the late-1970s. I previously met Prof Allan once, 7 years ago when Dale invited him to open the first run of our water and sanitation class at the University of Manchester. (There’s a post and video excerpt about that here.)

We filmed the interview at the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). This was the first time I’ve been there since becoming a Fellow last year, and my first time inside:

Dale asked a very rich set of questions about Prof Allan’s work and influence in the field of water policy around the world over the past 50 years. These focused around Prof Allan’s concept of ‘virtual water’ trade, for which he won the Stockholm Water Prize in 2008. Prof Allan also told us about the differences between ‘green’ water and ‘blue’ water, ‘big’ water and ‘small’ water, and the difference between ‘watersheds’ (hydrological) and ‘problem-sheds’ (political). Prof Allan then spoke about future global water challenges, water footprint approaches, his views about humanity’s ‘ancient instincts’ related to water (as Dale has talked about in our MOOCs and his published work), and advice to students wishing to work on water policy in future.

I was filmed asking Prof Allan about his work conditions for his innovative ideas, his involvement and motivations in developing and diffusing them, and his career context when he came up with ‘virtual’ or ’embedded’ water. Prof Allan mentioned ’16 hour days’ and a very high workload! It was abundantly clear he has long had an extremely high dedication to bettering our world through improving understanding of our multi-dimensional relationships to water and our environment! Once it’s edited and on the MOOC (via Coursera), these videos should provide both a great resource and record of Prof Allan’s innovative, influential work over his lifetime.

Just before the interview I separately took a few moments to visit the adjacent Victoria Embankment. I took a picture of the old gateway marking the original North bank of the River Thames, up until the 19th century (circa 1862) before the embankment area was reclaimed from the Thames, and interceptor sewers built underneath:

Photo: Gateway marking the original North bank of the River Thames in London, now part of the Victoria Embankment.
Photo: Onsite plaque about the Gateway, marking ‘the position of the North bank of the River Thames before the construction of the Victoria Embankment in 1862’. Originally a ‘watergate to York House’ acquired in 1624. (Image adjusted for readability.)

I was happy to take these pictures as I’ve previously spoken a little about the Victoria Embankment within the context of our Part 1 water MOOC (the relevant bit is around 21:55 in this video):

It’s really quite staggering to think that all the land from the edge of the modern day bank back to the buildings you can see in the photo below, was reclaimed:

Photo: River Thames and the Victoria Embankment.

Overall it was a long but interesting and useful day. And as soon as the video becomes I’ve available I’ll post again with the relevant details and links…

Photo (L to R): Prof Dale Whittington, Prof Tony Allan, and me. Source: Photo taken by Jon Bennett.

Duncan Thomas

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