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Posted by Stewart Auyash at 4:13AM   |  44 comments
Water for Child

Alexander Zehnder is the Scientific Director of the Alberta Water Research Institute in Edmonton, Canada. A few weeks ago, he gave a lecture entitled “Water for Life, For How Many?”  at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore where I am currently Visiting Associate Professor. 

Zehnder listed 6 major challenges facing the world regarding water:

Good water for a growing population

Water induced disasters protection

3)   The water infrastructure for distribution and collection

4)   The distribution of water between humans and ecosystems

5)   Solutions for water conflicts and fair water share for all

6)   Enough food for all

There are 3 kinds of water, according to Zehnder: blue water, which lands in rivers and places from which we drink; green water, which lands on green spaces and vegetation, which uses it to grow and eventually evaporates or just sits there; and virtual water, which is the water that is turned into food that is traded and sold across communities and national borders.

Virtual water is very interesting and important since the vast majority of countries import it (in the form of food).   There are 5 countries on the planet that are by far the largest exporters of virtual water: USA, Australia, Argentina, France, and Canada.  These countries, according to Zehnder, feed the world.  Most countries of the world are food importers (including China and India) and this disparity will only increase as the populations of these countries also increase. Africa may suffer the most because of enormous population growth and world trade and financing policies that favor richer exporting countries.

The demand for water is increasing further as more Chinese and others move into middle class and are interested in eating more meat. The production of meat requires about 10 times more water than the production of non-meats. If we all became vegetarians, according the Zehnder’s data, we would have enough water to meet the growing demands. However, he is not advocating universal vegetarianism.  He loves a good steak.

Since water and food are so inexorably connected, Zehnder believes that efforts at turning millions of acres of corn or sugar into fuel is “the dumbest idea ever.” Instead, we need to use the water for food and solve our fuel problems with other strategies.

Since he did not specifically address conflicts over water during his talk, I decided to ask him about it when the floor was opened up for questions. He said that even though some are claiming that water will be the cause of future (if not present) global conflicts, he disagrees. In the short run, there are conflicts over water. However, over the long run, countries realize the interdependence of their water needs and that water will actually bring people closer together.  That may be hopeful but examples from Turkey and Egypt seem to confirm his hypothesis and the current water issues in Southeast Asia (between China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) may be a test of his theory.

In the end, Zehnder himself concludes four things: 1) The growing economic and political dependence on virtual water must be addressed, 2) Virtual water should be part of all water management decisions, 3) Economic power of the poor countries must be strengthened to cope with water instability, and this is a not just a responsibility of richer (water exporting) countries, but it is also in their own interests, and 4) geopolitical efforts are needed to abandon the myth of national food self-sufficiency.

So water should be used for people and food, not for fuel.


Reading this brought back memories of how Singapore 'scurried' to create its own water (coined NEWater) when faced with diminishing freshwater sources. The national agency tapped into sewage water by using reverse osmosis technology. Many have said that this move was only made to reduce reduce reliance on water imported from Malaysia, which has been a source of friction over the years. When the treaty to sell water to Singapore expires in 2011, there is no guarantee that the Malaysian government will continue to do so.

Having said that, I think this is a much smaller problem compared to many other countries out there because Singapore probably has the finances to purchase water from elsewhere if the need arises.

I am not sure if Zehnder is over-optimistic when he says that in the long run water will bring people closer. It sure did not happen with oil.

I think issues of water would be further politicised in the future, to the detriment of developing countries and their people.

I've not really thought of water in any way other than it being just, water. I like the idea of virtual water. It just makes the whole idea of water management that much cooler (in my opinion)! Cos we always tend to see food as food and water as water, when in fact, food = food + water, so that's double the resources needed.

And it's useful to think of it in such a way because it highlights the importance of the delegation of the use of water all the more. If everyone could think of whatever they consume in terms of virtual water, it might probably make us more aware of how precious water is, especially in places with no water shortage?

Maybe the other solution is simply to eat less.

Thanks for your ideas. I think that Singapore is a good example of a wealthy country (as is Israel) that imports water and is trying to be intelligent about its use and abuse.

Koon Yen, I agree that Zehnder may be optimistic, but his research makes his argument a bit stronger. Time will tell about other some of the current conflicts like the one about the Mekong River.

Wie Shan, We could eat less, but Zehnder is suggesting we simply eat smarter by eating less of things that require so much water, like meat. Eating more plants will help us on many levels, but most countries do not have the political will to encourage eating more products that are healthier for us and the planet.

This is definitely an ongoing issue that is not going to die down anytime soon, especially when rich countries get richer, and poor countries, well, still pretty much remain vulnerable to high food prices and poverty.

As it is, the world is getting hungry for meat. Where it was once a rare treat for most, it is now a daily consumption. It is a sign of prosperity in China's growing cities where it is a testament to increasing wealth.

So what would we do? Tell people to be conscious of what they are eating and the impact it has on our environment. Make meat pricier? People will still grab their hands on it, fork out lump sums if they have to. It has become a way of life and is there a way of turning this around?

It is not just water we would be getting a shortage of, it is food too. Prices of food are climbing, and this is all due to our eating habits. Demand exceeding supply, where there is not enough food to go around, and alas, we pay through our nose (for those who can afford it) for quality foods that we want. It has become, whoever is the wealthier of the lot, can receive the food that they want. Such inflation hits the poorest people the most, as their lives revolve around just surviving, i.e working so hard just so they get enough food to eat.
It is sad to think of the disparity that divides us. People in developed countries producing much food waste that they don't finish consuming, and I'm guilty of that too.

We need a sustainable revolution fast, especially if the world population is continuing to soar.

I like the idea of "virtual water". It certainly revolutionized my understanding of water by connecting one life necessity closely to another: the food.

Searching for more fuel at the expense of food is indeed "the dumbest idea ever", just like someone is worrying about his expensive coat when held at gunpoint with his life on the line. But admittedly, it happens all the time, I would not second-guess that when such activities do take place, they are almost always profit-driven with big corporations' interests in the control seat.

Zehnder's call for the need to address "the growing economic and political dependence on virtual water" and for virtual water to be "part of all water management decisions" reminds me of the earlier scientific effort to tackle global warming. Before the world policymakers subscribed to the view that the dangers of global warming are "too large to ignore", warnings of the environmental scientists had been constantly marginalized and ignored; but even with their words, there is yet no promise that the political actions will be a match.

Nevertheless, to hear the call is still a critical step for us. Only from there are we able to reflect on the issue and what we should be doing in our daily lives in order to make an effort: to eat healthier is not only a self-conscious activity for health improvement, but also an act to save virtual water on our planet.

Why are there people with a lack of water in the world? Is it because First World countries are hoarding the water? Transnational corporations are taking over Third World water supplies and privatizing them? Are their too many people in the world and we're over consuming? I'm pretty sure there is enough water on this planet for humans and it baffles me that the one resource we need to survive is being abused. Vast amounts of water should not be used to grow vast amounts of food that we will be using for only fuel. Getting clean water to populations who are without this life necessity should be our first priority. We shouldn't be throwing around water like we have a superfluous amount. And right now, we don't. Water is finite!!!!!

I've never really thought about how much water must be involved in producing food and energy. I was aware that water and its use, and how much of it we have to go around, is a growing issue, but the idea of "virtual water" never occurred to me. Water is the key to life, so really anything that is produced is using water - we use it, it's used to make food, and now perhaps energy.

It seems to me like the best solution to conserve water would be to limit society. Limit production and industrialization. We would be, effectively, going back to basics. Funny how that happens. Like the economic cycle, "prosperity" goes up and down.

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