Honouring Professor Tony Allan, the inventor of ‘virtual water’ 

News Apr 16, 2021

Professor John Anthony Allan, the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate, has passed away. He was a great partner and friend to SIWI, and his work literally redefined the discourse and understanding of water policy and management. 

Tony Allan began his career as geographer at King’s College London and committed his working life to achieving sustainable and fair water usage. Professor Allan’s unwavering commitment to advancing and sharing knowledge on water was reflected by his enthusiastic participation in a total of 18 World Water Weeks.  His pioneering work with virtual water laid the foundation for the water footprint concept, commonly in use today. 

Redefining water 

Professor Allan spent much time studying water scarcity in the Middle East where he developed the term virtual water. He often took inspiration from his peers, in this case Gideon Fishelson who highlighted unfair water usage use by local agriculture, for fruits destined for overseas. In his work Allan describes farmers as the “‘de facto’ water managers of the world,” identifying their invaluable role in preserving water resources across the globe.  

 Professor Allan continued to develop the theory of using virtual water import, via food, as an alternative water “source” to reduce pressure on the scarcely available domestic water resources there and in other water-short regions. He was awarded the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize for his work on “virtual water”.  

Inspiring the next generation 

Beyond his scientific work, Tony Allan was also a passionate educator, communicator and mentor: ”a good idea, if not well communicated, is not a good idea!” he said.  

His work has inspired many other scientists to further explore the connections between water and economics. Arjen Hoekstra was one of them: Hoekstra built on Allan’s virtual water concept to develop the ‘water footprint’ framework that analyzes the link between human consumption and production and the appropriation of the globe’s freshwater.  This led to the discussion about how consumption habits in the rich world aggravates water scarcity in poorer parts of the world. 

“Tony Allan was a pioneering scientist, who was dedicated to creating a fair solution for water usage in water-scarce regions. He was personally known by many here at SIWI and will be hugely missed within the community. We were honoured to award him the Stockholm Water Prize and remain eternally grateful for his numerous scientific contributions. Our thoughts are with his family,” SIWI’s Executive Director Torgny Holmgren says in a comment.