In the mid-1990s, Tony Allan coined the term “virtual water” to describe international grain shipments, arguing that for purposes of economic efficiency and political legitimacy, governments in water-scarce nations would be better served by importing grain and diverting limited domestic water supplies to higher-value purposes than by producing grain. This concept has gained considerable traction in explaining the absence of “water wars,” particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As a prescriptive policy measure, I argue first that the exemplarity of the MENA serves an ideological function, premised on a market environmentalist approach, and framing “water crisis” as a problem of physical scarcity rather than underdevelopment. Historical trends in virtual water imports, as well as the problem of American primacy in virtual water exports, are then used to develop an account of virtual water trade that situates it within the political and economic restructuring associated with US-led globalization.

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