Food shortages and high food prices are hot topics of conversation these days, and people are scrambling to uncover the causes and improve the current situation. A recent Financial Times article
package explore the links between food, water, and land use in Egypt, which has always contended with limited water resources but in recent months has also dealt with the impacts of sharply escalating global grain prices
The article discusses how Egypt’s crops are grown under two distinct sets of conditions: the reclaimed desert in the West Nile Delta and the fertile Nile River Valley and Delta. In the desert, water is so scarce—and therefore valuable—that farmers are encouraged to conserve as much as possible through modern methods such as drip irrigation, helping the region achieve close to a 75 percent water efficiency rate.
This water-efficient agriculture lies in severe juxtaposition to the practices employed in the water-rich Nile River Valley and Delta. Here, rice is grown using flood irrigation techniques that waste 50 percent of the water. The government is attempting to increase water-use efficiency in order to use this saved water to reclaim more desert land for the production of high-value agricultural goods such as ornamental plants and citrus.
One idea proposed to alleviate water scarcity in countries like Egypt is that of “virtual water.” Proponents of virtual water argue that because water is embedded in products that are shipped around the world—particularly food—if water-scarce regions import these products instead of producing them domestically, they can then use their limited water for productive uses besides agriculture.
The Financial Times multimedia package includes an interview with Tony Allan, a professor at King’s College London and the originator of the concept of virtual water, for which he received the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize. He argues that virtual water would be “economically invisible”—as the cost of water is included in the cost of food, which would presumably be lower when imported from a country with plentiful water—and “politically silent”—as it would spare leaders from having to contend with the political fallout from a water shortage.
Unfortunately, as Allan notes, virtual water’s potentially large benefit to water-scarce regions is largely hypothetical, as U.S. and European agricultural subsidies prevent the prices of commodities, including water, from being set at their true levels. In addition, as the rice stockpiling triggered by the recent food crisis has demonstrated, few countries are likely willing to cease domestic food production entirely and entrust the filling of their kitchen cupboards to the global economy.