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Majid Labbaf Khaneiki, Abdullah Saif Al-Ghafri, Björn Klöve, Ali Torabi Haghighi, Sustainability and virtual water: The lessons of history, Geography and Sustainability, Volume 3, Issue 4, 2022, Pages 358-365, ISSN 2666-6839,

Sustainability and virtual water : the lessons of history

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Author: Khaneiki, Majid Labbaf1; Al-Ghafri, Abdullah Saif1; Klöve, Björn2;
Organizations: 1UNESCO Chair on Aflaj Studies and Archaeo-Hydrology, University of Nizwa, Nizwa, Oman
2Water, Energy and Environmental Engineering Unit, Faculty of Technology, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 1.4 MB)
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Language: English
Published: Elsevier, 2022
Publish Date: 2023-01-04


This article aims to show that virtual water has historically been an adaptation strategy that enabled some arid regions to develop a prosperous economy without putting pressure on their scarce water resources. Virtual water is referred to as the total amount of water that is consumed to produce goods and services. As an example, in arid central Iran, the deficiency in agricultural revenues was offset by more investment in local industries that enjoyed a perennial capacity to employ more workers. The revenues of local industries weaned the population from irrigated agriculture, since most of their raw materials and also food stuff were imported from other regions, bringing a remarkable amount of virtual water. This virtual water not only sustained the region’s inhabitants, but also set the stage for a powerful polity in the face of a rapid population growth between the 13th and 15th centuries AD. The resultant surplus products entailed a vast and safe network of roads, provided by both entrepreneurs and government. Therefore, it became possible to import more feedstock such as cocoons from water-abundant regions and then export silk textiles with considerable value-added. This article concludes that a similar model of virtual water can remedy the ongoing water crisis in central Iran, where groundwater reserves are overexploited, and many rural and urban centers are teetering on the edge of socio-ecological collapse. History holds an urgent lesson on sustainability for our today’s policy that stubbornly peruses agriculture and other high-water-demand sectors in an arid region whose development has always been dependent on virtual water.

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Series: Geography and sustainability
ISSN: 2096-7438
ISSN-E: 2666-6839
ISSN-L: 2096-7438
Volume: 3
Issue: 4
Pages: 358 - 365
DOI: 10.1016/j.geosus.2022.11.005
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 1171 Geosciences
Funding: We are grateful to University of Oulu that supported and hosted Majid Labbaf Khaneiki through Profi4 ArcI Visit Grant Program from June to September 2022 when this study took shape and developed.
Copyright information: © 2022 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. and Beijing Normal University Press (Group) Co., LTD. on behalf of Beijing Normal University. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (