Professor Anthony John Allan introduced a revolutionary concept in 2003 when he coined the term “Virtual Water Content” or VWC (Yang, Wang, Abbaspour, and Zehnder 443). Allan pointed out the obvious when he highlighted that one could measure the exact amount of water utilized in producing a particular commodity. However, at the turn of the 21st century, only a few people considered the possibility of creating a trade-like framework to establish a virtual exchange of the VWC values in both agricultural and industrial products (Barlow and Karunanthan 1). Allan’s VWC trade framework can provide economic, socio-political, and environmental advantages to those able to leverage the benefits based on water security and efficient water use.
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Virtual Water Content
According to water security experts, the VWC concept was the byproduct of discussions regarding the need to provide food in countries suffering from drought or plagued with perpetual water scarcity problems (Hoekstra 26). The discussions related to food production expanded to include water usage parameters regarding the production of clothes, construction materials, and other industrial products.
It is critical to focus on two aspects related to the process of appreciating the VWC values of agricultural and industrial products. First, some countries have easy access to abundant water resources. On the other hand, countries are struggling to provide appropriate water requirements to produce vital products. Second, some products are seen as water-intensive with respect to the amount of water needed to produce a specific unit of the said agricultural or industrial output.
Before the realization came about that a product’s VWC value is tradable, countries with water security problems dealt with multiple problems manifested in detrimental impacts on the economy, socio-political, and environmental realms (Schubert 1). Nevertheless, human reaction to water shortages tends to be limited to two basic response types. The first one entails the use of other resources to stockpile or manipulate water sources. The end goal is to enhance current supply levels or ensure stable supply in the foreseeable future. Those under dire circumstances and faced with greater needs due to greater insecurity are compelled to use desperate measures. It is not a startling revelation to know about wars and regional conflicts that find their starting points in a dispute over access to potable water resources (Yang, Wang, Abbaspour and Zehnder 445).
Leveraging the Benefits of VWC Values
Before going any further, it is important to figure out the process utilized to determine a product’s VWC value. It has to be made clear that “virtual water” is not the product’s exact water content, but the amount of water needed to produce a unit of output. For example, a kilogram of corn’s VWC value is the amount of water required to produce one kilogram. However, when it comes to the manufacturing needs of industrial products like stainless steel or roofing materials, the process of computing the product’s respective VWC value is a bit more complicated. Industrialists are expected to factor in not only the amount of water that was utilized to manufacture the said commodity, but they also need to know the amount of water that was used in the preparation, storage, clean-up, and the transport of the same (Yang, Wang, Abbaspour and Zehnder 446).
After providing an overview of the means to determine the VWC values of the product in question, it is now easier to understand each geographic location’s relative strength and weakness with regards to its access to water sources. It is also easier to appreciate the fact that countries are struggling to produce all the vital commodities required for sustained economic growth and socio-political stability. Furthermore, Allan’s VWC framework makes it possible to develop advantages in areas where there was only despair. In the past, government officials and business leaders were limited by the need to access a physical water source. However, with the introduction of the VWC concept, it is now possible to have virtual access to the same source even if the country’s geophysical features made it impossible to access large volumes of the said precious liquid. This idea is achievable because a country with a limited water supply is no longer compelled to produce commodities that will exhaust its meager inventory.
Global Water Savings
It is now possible to achieve global water savings because water-scarce areas are no longer compelled to produce or manufacture commodities that are water-intensive in VWC. It is also possible to develop better water conservation strategies. Countries with surplus water resources must establish industries that are going to produce items that are in high demand, and at the same time, items that are known to have high VWC values.
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After perfecting the framework wherein trade in terms of VWC are utilized, participating countries are going to experience benefits in the economic, socio-political, and environmental realms. The economic benefits are achieved when business leaders and government officials can establish better ways to understand opportunity costs. For example, they will figure out that it is no longer practical to build dams and other water stockpiling strategies. Water security experts are saying that the new scheme made it unnecessary to transfer water from one country to the next (Water Footprint Network 1). If government officials and stakeholders are unable to realize this insight regarding VWC trade, they are going to waste the country’s resources in building pipelines and other mechanisms that are needed to physically transport the said precious liquid.
Socio-political benefits are expressed in the capability to forge a lasting peace between neighboring territories. There is no need to go to war to secure access to a valuable resource. It is also possible to experience greater political and social stability due to the capability to address insecurities and concerns regarding critical needs. Since the residents in a particular area are no longer anxious about vital issues, they are now free to pursue other interests or projects that are, in turn, beneficial in nation-building.
Environmental benefits are achieved as a direct result of the ideas and insights generated from prudent water use and efficiency measures. Desperate needs also translate into desperate measures. When it comes to natural resources, the need to acquire a certain amount usually means the urge to bend the rules or the absence of restraints in destroying the environment. For example, the need to irrigate farms often entails the construction of large dams. The construction of large human-made structures leads to the destruction of river systems and animal habitats.
Decisions on Local Production Options
After considering everything, the benefits created in the socio-political, economic, and environmental spheres are also going to help leaders and stakeholders make relevant and appropriate decisions regarding local food production. An in-depth study of the VWC value of a specific crop helps determine the type of investment required from pre-production requirements to post-production needs. For example, water security experts say that to produce one kilogram of wheat, farmers and investors will require access to more than a thousand liters of water (Eco-Footprints 1). Those with water supply problems will reject the idea. Still, those with a surplus water supply may decide to take on the responsibility of producing this critical crop so others may live.
It is interesting to point out that the ability to decide which crop or livestock deserves government or local support has an indirect impact on global water savings. It is not prudent to shift to the local food production if the region struggles with inadequate water supply. In this scenario, it is best to export food products and allow other territories to produce the said crop. As a result, there is no need to draw out the water in areas with limited access to the said precious liquid. Thus, the residents can save water and allocate its usage for other more important activities, especially activities that may affect the lives of the general public. All these things are made possible because of the development of a revolutionary concept called Virtual Water Content. Leaders and policymakers can now view crops and industrial goods from a different perspective, and hopefully, make the correct decision on how to utilize limited water resources.
Barlow, Maude and Meera Karunanthan. Leaky Exports: A Portrait of the Virtual Water Trade in Canada. The Council of Canadians, 2011, Web.
Eco-Footprints. The Concepts of Water Footprint and Virtual Water. 2017, Web.
Schubert, Helmar. The Virtual Water and the Water Footprint Concepts. Acatech Project Group, 2011, Web.
Water Footprint Network. Virtual Water Trade. 2017, Web.
Yang, H., Wang, L., Abbaspour K. and A. Zehnder. “Virtual Water Trade: An Assessment of Water Use Efficiency in the International Food Trade.”