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Virtual water - Tackling the threat to our planet's most precious resource

Virtual water

By Tony Allan
Published by I.B.Tauris
Website: www.ibtauris.com
2011, 365pp, ISBN 978 1 84511 984 3 (Pb), £12.99

Water is a resource that most take for granted: it falls from the sky, flows in rivers, gathers in lakes, and trees and crops draw it up from the soil, all without our intervention. And there lies the crisis-in-waiting: expanding population and increased water demand for agriculture, industry, household use and leisure now exceeding the limits of sustainable use with many parts of the world showing signs of serious shortage. While some speak optimistically of a post-oil world no one has suggested the possibility of a post-water society. Admittedly, attempts have been made to economise in water use - not leaving taps to run, taking showers rather than baths, flushing less in toilets, and industry recycling water. But though these savings help, Tony Allan shows that they are insignificant compared with the water we use in what we eat. This is what is now termed 'virtual water'.

The opening words in Virtual water are: "This book will shock you into thinking about water in new ways. Put simply, human beings don't understand the true value of water, and we are at a point in our relationship with nature's vast but limited water resources where we simply cannot afford to stay ignorant." What we don't understand is that our water consumption goes well beyond simple drinking, cooking, washing and watering gardens, if we have them. "Drinking is not the problem, eating is," he writes, describing how water is used in unimaginable quantities to grow, process, package and transport all that we consume. Simple but stark graphics show how much water it takes to get a slice of bread onto our plate - 40 litres, one egg 200 litres, a cup of coffee 140 litres, a litre of milk 1,000 litres. And when we eat meat, particularly grain-fed red meat, the water utilised really stuns: the production of every kilogram of beef requires 15,500 litres.

Virtual water is a fascinating book, the author drawing on a wide knowledge of history, geography, agriculture, politics and human behaviour. Professor of Geography at Kings College, University of London, and advisor to governments and organisations, his expertise was recognised when he was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize in 2008. Weaving many strands of cause and effect with humour and compassion, he draws lessons from the past and suggests steps to the future. One chapter examines the water management experiences of three industrialised economies: California, its water miracle of hydro engineering and food exports "curing as it harms and harming as it cures"; the UK, an example of how farming becomes more water-efficient as the wealth of an economy increases; and Spain, "truly the best and worst of all possible water worlds".

In another chapter he contrasts experiences of three developing economies, his subtitles speaking for themselves: Egypt: apocalypse never; Vietnam: apocalypse reversed; and Ethiopia: apocalypse now. A third chapter considers the water management of two of the four BRIC countries, China and Brazil, and how they are impacting on global demand and supply. All have something to inform and teach us, most dramatically, perhaps, that: "There's a very strong argument for the assertion that no other decision has had so great a positive effect on global water management than China's one-child policy." Indeed, he believes, China has saved the world by reducing world population by the equivalent of the population of the US, Canada and Greenland, and thus global demand for water, virtual and real.

To avoid crisis Tony Allan dismisses constructing more dams and hydraulic works that destroy the environment, nor is the priority to focus on water savings in the kitchen, bathroom and toilet. Much greater savings are possible through the shopping basket and dinner plate. "It sounds glib, but we can eat ourselves out of this problem," he writes. "Research suggests that diet changes could reduce per capita water consumption in the industrialised countries by up to 40 per cent. Less meat; more water." And there lies Tony Allan's answer to any responsive reader who asks, 'What can I do to safeguard water security?' "What we eat and what we don't waste will enable us to be water-secure," he concludes. Less waste and less waist, he puns. Easy to remember, a challenge to implement, and presenting major implications for agriculture, this is a 'must read' book.

Date published: May 2012

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