What is virtual water, and how can it be tangible?

At the start of the academic year, I looked for a selective module which would include climate change and which would have a more practical approach to learn differently and combine it with last year’s theory.
I selected a module from the Geography department, Global Environmental Change.

In the past months I’ve been learning about global changes our planet is experiencing from a more scientific approach. I really enjoyed that, and it made my mind take a glance at the memories of studying geography in a small classroom that smelled of pencil sharpenings and had a map which read “Jugoslavia”.

As part of this module, each student created a blog on a topic of choice.
I chose mine to be about virtual water, the water which is indirectly needed to make everything we use: from extraction processes, to servicing, to growing food for us or animals that some of us eat. It’s funny that I first got to know about it 5 years ago now, and wrote about it on this blog then.

For my uni module I wanted to bring home the concept of virtual water by making it more concrete, so I called it Tangible Virtual Water.

I will post the articles I wrote for it here too. This was the first post.



The first time I read about the water cost of elements which comprise the tangible (objects, materials, food) and abstract (services) threads which interconnect into a web-like form of our everyday life, was through an article linked to the National Geographic newsletter I had subscribed to.

It had a focus on food items, and explained how different types of food not only have a carbon footprint, but a water cost.
As someone at an initial stage of enjoying unveiling how the way we live impacts our surroundings, it was a remarkably surprising discovery.

After a few years of further independent findings, and numerous mind realisations later, during one of the first lectures of my Urban Environmental Planning and Management in Development module – a.k.a. “ES2” – last year I learned this water cost is commonly referred to as virtual water, or embedded water.

Professor Tony Allan was the one to come up with the notion of virtual water.
Water experts Hoekstra and Chapagain define virtual water as “[…] the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the people […]”.

Everything we do is linked to the use of water.

That’s a significant notion I have been absorbing since my learning about it.
On top of using water directly, such as when having a shower, drinking water, using a washing machine of flushing the toilet, we rely on different volumes on water being used during the production process of what we eat, the clothes we wear, the objects we use and services we take advantage of on a day-to-day basis.

The impact of this water usage is meaningful. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Global Risk Report, the water crisis in the biggest global risk based on its impact to society.

The main global sources of fresh water constitute under 1% of all water on Earth, and climate change is simply contributing to further accentuate the issues of lowering fresh water global stocks.

What can be done to prevent this crisis from reaching an even more critical stage?
What are governments doing to prevent countries from running out of water or preventing water pollution?
Finally, but very importantly, what can we – as consumers – do?
Within this blog, and over a number of weeks, I am going to keep in mind these different scales when looking into virtual water in a variety of contexts (regulations, food production, clothing production, pollution…), with a particular focus on what we can do as consumers as bearers of steering powers within a capitalist society with production – at least partly – determined by supply and demand.
Fortunately there are a number of ways the world’s population can reduce its water footprint, including using production techniques which require less water, on a higher scale, while raising awareness of water scarcity issues and actively shifting our consumption patterns towards goods which require lower amounts of water for their production, on a relatively smaller scale point of view.

So let’s start with something graspable: a compelling image to really link how this virtual water business is, in fact, very tangible.
Amongst global water consumption, food accounts for a particularly high share.
This infographic from FAO gives a sense of the virtual water needed for commonly consumed food and drinks, at least in the majority of Global North regions, including the UK.


Unsurprisingly, the most remarkable food example to catch my eye is the last one, the hamburger.

2,400 litres of water for a single burger?

It’s a good representative case as it portrays the concept of virtual water well.
The amount of water needed to produce a single hamburger is very high due to the fact that it includes the water used behind the scenes.
It’s the water needed for the whole range of processes which make up its production, such as the water needed to grow and produce the crops that the animal eats in order to then be able to turn it into meat.
Added to that are the gallons of water the animal needs to drink daily while growing, the water needed for servicing, and other water-using steps which I will look into to more detail in upcoming posts.

In the meantime, take the opportunity to familiarise yourself and gain insight on how daily habits have a water cost and contribute to the demand for water for your country, or countries where the goods you use are imported from, with the aforementioned National Geographic interactive infographic.

By also using this National Geographic water calculator you will be able to see how much water you use in your household and how you could pick up habits that could enable you to save litres of precious water every single day.
Your home’s taps, white goods’ efficiency, diet, transport habits, energy sources, shopping patterns… it all counts and adds up in terms of water use.

Here is an additional one: Water Calculator: including direct use (sanitation, kitchen) and indirect use of water (driving, electricity, shopping, waste management, diet).

And if you’re curious to find out about the virtual water needed for more everyday foods such as bread, bananas, sugar, pork, milk and bio-fuel with a range of staple items, the interactive Water Footprint carousel will provide more facts that may astonish you.


How tangible do you now find the concept of virtual water?

Having had an introduction to this concept, who do you think is responsible for making sure we take meaningful steps to address issues surrounding water use and availability?
Where should we focus to reduce our use of virtual water and alleviate the pressure on global water stocks?


2 thoughts on “What is virtual water, and how can it be tangible?

    • Hello Trish!! I know, it’s a big concept to have in mind! For example today my colleague had some spare paper and I remembered the water cost is 10 litres for each sheet! I’m using it all to take notes 🙂


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