The Water Economy: An Excerpt from Nourished Planet


The following is an excerpt from Nourished Planet: Sustainability in the Global Food System, published by Island Press in June of 2018. Nourished Planet was edited by Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, and produced with support from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.

The recognition of water as a basic human right was proclaimed in the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 64/292. In response to the resolution, the UN Human Rights Council directed member states to “develop appropriate tools and mechanisms, which may encompass legislation, comprehensive plans, and strategies for the sector, including financial ones, to achieve progressively the full realization of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, including in currently unserved and underserved areas.”

Water scarcity can be a source of conflict between those with a sparse supply and those with plenty, so the fair and careful monitoring of supply management and distribution is of global importance. In addition to the water used for drinking and agriculture, virtual water—water used during the process of worldwide trade—is an important resource that must be quantified and analyzed.

The concept of virtual water was introduced by Tony Allan, one of the world’s leading experts on water. Allan defines virtual water as a means to “reveal the hidden factors of our real global water consumption.” He also describes the urgent need to promote this concept. “Already, our over-consumption and mismanagement of water has had a very serious impact on our water environments and the essential services they provide. . . . Most of us don’t have the slightest idea about the sheer volumes of water involved in our daily lives. To make a cup of coffee, it takes 140 liters. That’s the true amount of water used in growing, producing, packaging, and shipping the beans you use to make your morning coffee,” Allan says. He thinks the use of virtual water was less of a concern in the past because “the ratio of water to people was so massive that it was as if our water supply was infinite.” Now, he says, “it is not. And now, with a global population pushing seven billion, water scarcity is not just a possibility. It is already a reality for many.”

Virtual water is traded in huge volumes as crops that need large amounts of water to cultivate are shipped far and wide, not always with sensible results. For example, three of the world’s top 10 wheat-exporting countries are seriously short of water, and three of the top 10 wheat importers are blessed with an abundance of it. The level of interdependence between countries in the virtual exchange of water resources is critical, however, and it is destined to grow in the future, given the ongoing, often controversial deregulation of international trade.

Water trade expert Dennis Wichelns, a professor of economics and executive director of the Rivers Institute at Hanover College, analyzed the trade patterns between Jordan and other countries, including the United States. Because Jordan has little water, it trades with other countries for commodities that use a lot of water to produce. Wichelns explains that “[Jordan] imports five to seven billion cubic meters of water in virtual form per year, which is in sharp contrast with the 1 billion [cubic meters] of water withdrawn annually from domestic water sources.” Therefore, he states, “People in Jordan survive owing to the fact that their ‘water footprint’ has largely been externalized to other parts of the world, for example, the U.S.”

If demand grows and resources dwindle—in part because of pollution and climate change—then clearly the economic value of water will grow, and the gap between those who have plenty of water and those who do not will provoke new conflicts. Water privatization—when private sectors purchase the right to participate in the sanitation and distribution of water resources—has been cited as a possible, albeit divisive solution to this problem.

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