‘Virtual Water: More Heat than Light?’ – Capitalism, Nature, Socialism

Capitalism Nature Socialism


Virtual Water: More Heat than Light?


Stelios Gialis* & Stavros Mavroudeas

Published online: 10 Jan 2014



Virtual Water (VW) and its associated concept of Water Footprint (WF) have recently become popular terms in the field of water resources. Their proponents maintain that they offer a novel method to help countries/ regions implement sustainable water policies, through adequate balances of VW ‘trade’. Thus, a problem of management of a scarce resource is answered by creating a shadow market mechanism which would promote efficiency and sustainable development. This paper offers a critique of the VW approach from a Marxist perspective. Although these concepts have been created as practical tools without an explicit theory behind them, they have a hidden theoretical background which is mainstream economics. This is an inherently inefficient perspective since it neglects the social dimension of economic relations and thus fails to comprehend how issues of class, power and unequal exchange affect water resources. The VW approach deifies uncritically the market mechanism, treats erroneously water as a sui generis commodity substance and adopts blindly the problematic international trade theory of comparative advantage. These problematic latent theoretical choices limit its explanatory ability and its policy usefulness.


Virtual water; water-footprint; world trade; agricultural production processes, political economy of water, unequal exchange



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