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

September 8, 2011

Tony Allan is acknowledged as a world authority in the political economy of water policy and its reform. A pioneer in the development of key concepts in the understanding and communication of water issues, he received the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize in 2008.

In this book, Allan attempts to introduce and develop his "virtual water" concept into something that the general public can understand, in order to demonstrate the real impacts of our consumption of water and highlight the need to manage its use in a more planet-friendly way.

The virtual water concept measures how water is embedded in the production and trade of food and consumer products. The first chapter eases readers in with an illustration of the virtual water cost of the everyday foodstuffs we eat for breakfast. This serves as the catalyst for readers to consider their own virtual water usage; Allan goes on to make us think about how countries in water-scarce areas can still meet the needs of their population. This is usually by means of their wealth and ability to provide better infrastructure.

Politics is also introduced, which forces us to re-evaluate our attitude to water and water sustainability. As Allan observes: "Water riches do not guarantee prosperity any more than water poverty ensures poverty. Water has always been subordinate to money and politics. Politics trumps national water-management priorities nearly every time." The author has selected certain countries to demonstrate the points he makes, and these work very effectively. Again readers are forced to think about water availability where they previously may have taken it for granted. I think this is really the point of this book: Allan attempts to start a conversation, with the modest ambition of achieving global water security by changing minds. As he says, "Virtual water trade silently keeps the world fed, watered and, partially at least, moving."

I found Virtual Water engaging; a popular book written by someone who clearly knows how to communicate. This is much more than an introduction to the virtual water concept; it is almost the genesis of a virtual water popular movement. You do not have to agree with all of Allan's points or to understand all of the scientific detail to recognise that this work's real purpose is to increase awareness of the tragedy that water is not valued according to its real cost, never mind its environmental importance.

I would recommend this book to anybody interested in sustainability. Virtual water is a concept that I expect will receive much publicity in the future, and this book, ahead of its time, provides us with a unique insight.

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

By Tony Allan, I.B. Tauris, 384pp, £55.00 and £12.99, ISBN 9781845119836 and 9843, Published 26 May 2011

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