Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Drop to Drink: The False Promise of Virtual Water

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The concept of ‘‘virtual water,’’ which represents the volume of water needed to produce a particular quantity of agricultural commodity, has become popular among international water experts. Advocates of the concept argue that trade in virtual water can help even out the imbalances generated by the irregular distribution of water resources around the world – an attempt to make the world conform to an abstract model that some scholars have termed ‘‘virtualism’’. This paper argues that the concept of virtual water is limited, however, by its reduction of water to a question of crop inputs alone, erasing both the labor of those who channel that water onto their fields and of the water itself as it moves through the landscape. The paper focuses on the case of Egypt, an arid country where water scarcity poses a critical challenge and where water experts are increasingly talking about virtual water as a policy solution. The government’s policy to decrease the area of water-intensive rice cultivation, limit rice exports, and increase rice imports exemplifies a virtual water logic. Yet, I argue, seeing water as being virtually embedded in rice obscures the way in which it washes salts from the soil of rice paddies and maintains soil quality. The fact that water fulfills multiple functions, beyond just that of feeding crops, helps explain why the government’s efforts to implement a policy that makes sense from a virtual water perspective have so far been unsuccessful. The paper concludes that attention to the labor of people and the resources that they mobilize reveals some of the socio-natural elements that may evade, challenge, and defy virtualisms.