Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageALN #45, Spring/Summer 1999
Water in Cities

Water Stress and Global Mitigation: Water, Food and Trade

by J. Anthony Allan

"The impact of drought is very different on a diverse and strong political economy than on a weak political economy. It is essential that those devising remedies to drought events take into account political and economic futures different from those that exist now. The future will frequently be a socially and economically developed future."


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In discussing drought it is important to define which type of drought is being addressed. Different types of drought not only affect different sectors but also have different social, political and economic impacts and may potentially be addressed by different socio-political solutions. This paper proposes that drought mitigation by means of global trade in foodstuffs embedding "virtual water" can be an efficient solution to the problem.

Droughts may impact water supplies for drinking water, for domestic water, for municipal water, industrial water and/or agricultural water. Interruptions to the first three types of consumption are very evident when they occur as individuals, communities and metropolitan centers may suffer breaks in supply. Such interruptions have immediate political significance. They draw attention to progressive declines in water availability as well as to drought events. Water shortages which impact livelihoods in industry and agriculture can also be politically as well as economically significant, but tend to generate less political heat than interruptions to drinking and domestic supplies.

The per-person use of water in these different sectors varies greatly. Very tiny amounts of water, as measured in annual consumption per head, are used by an individual for drinking - one cubic meter per person per year (m3/p/y). About 100 m3/p/y are used for domestic purposes in an industrialized political economy in the North; although only five m3/p/y in a poor African country south of the Sahara. About 1000 m3/p/y are needed to raise the food consumed annually by an individual whether living in the North or the South. They may of course consume much more in affluent economies. Meanwhile water for livelihoods in non-agricultural industrial sectors can be negligible, for example at a research institute whether in Tucson or Timbucktu. On very rare occasions use per head in industry may be higher than those encountered in agriculture. These examples demonstrate that the water cost of food production can be quite high within a country's total water budget and, even further, may in effect constitute a drag on the country's potential for economic development.

Population levels, socio-economic circumstances and local food preferences all drive the levels of water used in association with food consumption. For example, it only requires about 1000 tonnes (m3) of water to raise a tonne of wheat but requires about 16 times that amount to raise a tonne of meat.

Water for food is the "big" water in any national water budget. Happily it has been proposed that there is a global water, food and trade nexus (McCalla 1997) which operates extremely efficiently to move water across the world from water surplus regions to those in permanent or occasional deficit. In the case of the MENA region, the "virtual water" embedded in imported, water-intensive commodities such as wheat makes up for the current water deficit (currently about 25 percent more than actually available supplies) that the region would need to supply to be water and food self-sufficient.

An explanation of "virtual water"

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"Virtual water" represents the amount of water needed to raise a certain quantity of food. In other words, a tonne of grain has 1 tonne of "virtual water" embedded in it because that is how much water it took to raise that amount of grain. The concept of "virtual water" is powerful in two senses. First it provides the remedy for progressive and occasional local "agricultural" drought. Agricultural drought is the form of drought which is most common as deficiencies in soil water are evident in the failure of crops. The much smaller quantities of water needed for domestic use almost always come from other parts of the hydrological cycle than the soil water which supports crops.

Where the same surface source is used for all sectors, as in Egypt, then the volumes needed for domestic use are so small compared with those of irrigated agriculture that the prioritization of domestic supplies is not a major political problem. Where groundwater is the resource the exhaustion of a regional water resource by a high water-using sector such as irrigated agriculture can lead to severe stress for all users including the urban domestic sector. The Libyan experience is a case in point (Allan 1971). Spain is currently experiencing serious inter-sectoral competition for local waters (Del Moral 1996). "Virtual water" remedies national water deficits in a particularly effective way, as pointed out in the example of the MENA region given above.

Analyzing the impacts of progressively deteriorating water supplies caused by demographically driven rising demands or the occasional single or multiple-year drought without taking into account the "virtual water" remedy is at best a partial approach. Local water deficits can be remedied by importing crops grown with water from the soil profiles of very distant tracts. In this way, water deficit economies get answers to their problem in international "problemsheds" not in local watersheds. The latter are a form of closed hydrological system. Economies and polities operate in open economic and political systems. Polities and economies are impeded by closed hydrological systems but their options are not determined by them.

Of course, this does not negate the importance of ensuring that scarce water is effectively and efficiently allocated. Principles of water use efficiency provide foundation ideas for the supply and demand management approaches to water management (Brooks 1994, Merrett 1997, Winpenny 1994). Water can be engineered so that higher returns to water are achieved. Doubling water use efficiency by improvements in the distribution of water and the reduction of leakage would go a long way to meeting the future needs of increasing populations. It is entirely possible that engineering measures will achieve such improvements as these via productively or technically efficient measures. "More crop per drop" (IIMI 1996), the mission statement of the International Irrigation Management Institute, captures this principle of productive efficiency.

Still greater economic benefits can be achieved by allocating water more effectively through economically or allocatively efficient measures. A hectare of wheat, requiring about 5000-6000 cubic meters of water, would provide a livelihood for a family in a poor country. It would provide only a fifth or less of a livelihood in an industrialized economy. In such an economy, the same hectare occupied by a service sector activity using the same water input could provide a thousand livelihoods and services turning over US$50 million per year. Allocatively effective water-using activities can provide 10000 times the returns to water compared with those from agriculture. The greater livelihood-providing potential of such activities enables communities and whole national economies to ensure their "entitlement": that is, to access to water-intensive food commodities in trading systems. This concept of allocative efficiency is captured by the term "more jobs per drop."

The importance of analyzing water stress in socio-economic contexts is further highlighted by economic concepts linking environmental resource use and socio-economic development. These models are very helpful in highlighting the socio-economic contexts which enable or impede water policy reform (Karshenas 1994, Karshenas & Allan 1996). In brief the models attempt to show that a political economy goes through a number of predictable phases in its approach to managing its environmental capital, in this case water. In an early phase environmental capital tends to be an input enabling economic development. As a result the stock of environmental capital, for example water, tends to be degraded. When an economy reaches a phase of economic diversity and strength it can take different approaches and enjoy options not available when the economy was weak. One option is to curtail environmentally damaging policies. In a further phase when the economy is even stronger it is possible for governments and communities to rehabilitate the environment. The importance of the model is that it shows that remedies for drought impacts are not equally available. Concomitantly it must not be assumed that all political economies are equally afflicted by drought. (Wilhite 1993:5) Social adaptive capacity varies and is transformed in the course of the socio-economic "development" of a political economy.

Socio-political context

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The first concept of political theory which is useful in analyzing drought and its consequences is the notion of the "interests" of the communities, bureaucracies and nations affected by drought events. These political entities will try to ensure that any beneficial outcomes of a drought are gained by them, or at least the most damaging ones are avoided. A number of analysts have shown how drought events in the 1970s (Sen 1981) and the 1980s (De Waal 1989) had severe impacts when economic and administrative infrastructures work to amplify the disruptions of a drought event rather than alleviate them.

Secondly, discursive analysis (McHoul and Grace 1993), an approach used by social scientists, helps analysts of the water sector and of drought events in particular. These analytical techniques show how those coping with drought in water using and water policy making communities contend with those advocating policy reform from outside the drought-affected regions. The process of contention and the achievement of "consensus" takes time and outcomes never accord exactly with the goals of any of the contending parties. A version of this explanation is that of "sanctioned discourse" (Tripp 1996), a process especially evident in political economies with a very long tradition of water management, for example Egypt. In brief, communities and governments oppose unfamiliar innovation. Governments are involved with traditional water-using communities, usually in agriculture, in a discourse which is sanctioned. There is only one agenda, the traditional agenda. Any deviation from this to consider for example allocative efficiency measures would have such a high political price that it is not considered. Similarly the notion of recognizing that "virtual water" is a potential remedy to the increasing national water deficits and drought events carries an even higher political price and is also rejected.

Thirdly, the concept of strong societies and weak states (Migdal 1988) reinforces the explanation derived from discursive analysis. In many political economies rural water-using communities are large and vested with such long traditions of water management that their views prevail over the views of officials acting on behalf of the state. The state institutions are not strong enough to ensure that there is institutional capacity to respond to drought events; ideas and actions at the local level determine response. When local-level capacity to cope with major drought events is further strained by rising population and there are impediments to traditional responses such as migration resulting from local political differences or international boundary regulation, outcomes can be severe. An example of this can be seen in the droughts of the 1970s and the 1980s in Sahelian Africa.

Fourthly the concept of "windows of opportunity" (Kingdon 1984) is especially relevant to water management in water-scarce circumstances. The occurrence of a drought causes a short period of convergence in the ideas held by government officials and ministers (Feitelson 1996), as well as by the public and the media (Allan 1996). Such convergence provides an opportunity for those wishing to introduce water policy reforms. The case of Israel is especially useful in illustrating this phenomenon (Allan 1995). The droughts of 1986 and 1991-92 were not by themselves sufficient to bring about a change in national water allocation policy. But they proved to be the essential window of opportunity to swing the necessary public focus onto the issue of the sustainable utilization of national water resources. Two additional political economy contexts were also important in bringing about the shift in policy. The first factor was domestic. It was the discourse that had been in train since the early 1960s about the need to adopt allocatively efficient (Palmer 1962) as well as environmentally sustainable water policies. Activist scientists, Israeli officials and green pressure groups gained the attention of the media with talk of "red-lines"; these being dangerous drawdown thresholds with respect to lake levels in Lake Tiberias/Kinneret and in observation wells monitoring the West Bank aquifer. The second factor was international. In 1986 the US Reagan Administration embarked on a campaign to steer the Israeli economy. The US Government made the granting of a US$10 billion financial support dependent on major reforms in the Israeli economy. Water was one of the sectors targeted. Water reform was linked to drought, international pressure and internal discourse.

The 1991-92 drought brought further shifts in water allocation out of agriculture in accord with principles of economic efficiency. Israel had proposed to reduce allocations to agriculture by 60 per cent from their mid-1980s levels. Half of this target had already been achieved by 1991 (Voice of Israel 1991). Yet, there has been a dramatic reversal in Israel's approach since 1992. The shift confirms again the dominance of politics in political economies. The period since 1992 has been an important phase in the Middle East Peace Process. Great progress was made by 1995; a peace accord was signed in September 1994 between Jordan and Israel. In September 1995 the Oslo Accord was signed between Israel and Palestine (Allan, 1996). Throughout the 1992-99 period Israel has allowed its water consumption to rise, a reversal of the 1986-1992 policy. The shift confirms again the dominance of politics in political economies and the perceived need by Israel to negotiate over water from a high level of consumption rather than a low one.


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The impact of drought is very different on a diverse and strong political economy than on a weak political economy. It is essential that those devising remedies to drought events take into account political and economic futures different from those that exist now. The future will frequently be a socially and economically developed future. The second main conclusion is that global economic systems are very important indeed with respect to local periodic drought. Global economic systems are especially important for those political economies which now, or will in future, face longer term permanent water deficits. The global system also has the capacity to meet any local periodic droughts provided that economic and political systems to move supplies to the stressed locality are enabling rather than impeding.


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The theoretical and case study material paper used in this paper results from decades of discussions with professionals, scientists and officials in Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean countries. Awareness of the new hydraulic mission--to use water in environmentally and economically sound ways--has resulted from attending many workshops and through involvement in studies of water policy for a number of international and bilateral agencies. To all the convenors and participants in these activities, thanks are due for this diverse and informative insights.


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Allan, J. A. 1971. Libya the experience of oil. London: Croom Helm.

Allan, J. A. 1995. The role of drought in determining the reserve water sector in Israel. Drought Network News. International Drought Information Center. Vol 7, No. 3. October 1995. pp 21-23.

Allan, J. A. 1996. Drought as a concept and drought as an instrument of policy, in Haddad, M. and Feitelson, E. Management of shared aquifers. Third Workshop, Jerusalem: Palestinian Consultancy Group and the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. pp

Brooks, D. B. 1994. Economic, ecology and equity: lessons from the energy crisis in managing water shared by Israelis and Palestinians, in Isaac, J. and Shuval, H. Water and peace in the Middle East. Amsterdam: Elsevier. pp 441-450.

Del Moral, L. 1996. The debate on the financial and economic regulation of water in contemporary hydrological planning in Spain, in Allan, J. A. and Radwan, L. (eds). Perceptions of the values of water and water environments. Proceedings of the European Community Erasmus Seminar. London: Departments of Geography of SOAS and Middlesex Universities. Pp 37-45.

De Waal, A. 1989.Famine that kills: Darfur, Sudan 1984-85. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Feitelson, E. 1996. Economic and political dimensions in changing perceptions of water in the Middle East, in Allan, J. A. and Radwan, L. Perceptions of the value of water and water environments. Paper as the Erasmus Seminar held at the University of Middlesex, London UK in 1996.

IIMI. 1996. Mission statement of the International Irrigation Management Institute. Colombo: IIMI

Karshenas, M. 1994. Environment, technology and employment. Development and Change. Vol 25:4. pp 723-757.

Karshenas and Allan. 1996. Managing environmental capital. In Allan, J. A. Water, peace and the Middle East: negotiating resources in the Jordan Basin. London: Tauris Academic Publications. pp 121-135.

Kingdon, J. 1984. Agendas, alternatives and public policies. New York: Harper-Collins.

McCalla, A. 1997. Water, food and trade. Paper at the Mediterranean Development Forum convened by the World Bank, in Marrakech, Morocco in March 1997.

McHoul, A. and Grace, W. 1993. A Foucault primer: discourse, power and the subject. London: UCL Press.

Migdal J. 1988. Strong societies and weak states: state-society relations and state capabilities in the Third World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Merrett, S. 1997. Introduction to the economics of water resources. London: UCL Press.

Palmer, M. 1962. A memorandum by an economic secretary at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv in which the author pointed out that the future economic prosperity of Israel would lie in water economical industry and services and not in agriculture.

Sen, A. 1981. Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Tripp, C. H. 1996. personal communication

Voice of Israel. 1991. An announcement quoting the Israeli Minister of Agriculture that water was to be cut again to agriculture. Jerusalem and IDF Radio. Tel Aviv. 2200 GMT. 27 January 1991. This comment was confirmed by the by then ex-Water Commissioner of Israel at a meeting in December 1992 in the University of Zurich when Israeli and Palestinian scientists and officials were meeting for the first time publicly. He indicated that water to agriculture would be cut by 60 per cent from mid-1980s levels; half had already been achieved.

Wilhite, D. 1993. The enigma of drought, in Wilhite, D. Drought assessment, management and planning: theory and case studies. Boston: Kluwer Publishers.

Winpenny, J. 1994. Managing water as an economic resource. London: Routledge and ODI.

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Author information

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Dr. J.A. (Tony) Allan is a faculty member in the Department of Geography, School of Oriental and African Studies, The University of London. As such, he is a member of the SOAS Water Issues Group, a multi-disciplinary group of researchers drawn from SOAS' Department of Geography, Centre of African Studies, and Centre of Near and Middle Eastern Studies. He can be contacted as follows:

Dr. J.A. Allan
University of London
Thornhaugh Street
London WC1H 0XG
Tel. +44 (171) 323 6159
Fax 44 (171) 436 3844

Additional web resources:

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