Virtual water

Toma Serban Peiu, Alice Hill


The animation is a representation of water leaving the Aral Sea basin by way of “virtual water” – water used in goods that were exported between 1960 and 2016.  For the animation, we focused on cotton because it is a globally exported product.  So each of the ‘lasers’ in the animation is 1 cubic kilometer of water that leaves the basin as a result of the water taken to grow the cotton that was exported. The idea was to track the water “migration” and to see if human migration rates mimic the pattern

Virtual water refers to the amount of water needed to make a product. Its “virtual-ness” is realized when the product is traded outside of the area, effectively exporting the water from the region. Most countries participate in the global water trade via virtual water used in commodities but there is an imbalance of some regions producing water-intensive products for export.  This results in utilizing significant domestic water resources for the benefit of international locations and communities.  In the case of Central Asia, virtual water used for production of water-loving crops like wheat, cotton, rice, among others, led to a huge loss of water resources to the region. This massive change is visually apparent by the shrinking Aral Sea.

This project is an interdisciplinary project resulting from the collaboration of hydrologist and physical geographer Alice Hill and filmmaker and media scholar Toma Peiu. Between the concepts of migrant labor and virtual water, we examine connections of the missing water to the missing people of the Aral Sea basin. This region is a vast ecosystem whose arid, dry downstream flatlands are shaped by the state’s decision to pursue centralized agriculture. At the same time its upstream water sources in the high mountain glaciers are now increasingly affected by climate change. This non-traditional collaboration was instigated by the Nature Environment, Science, and Technology (NEST) Studio for the Arts at University of Colorado-Boulder. NEST combines “artistic practice and scientific research to explore our common and disparate ways of observing, recording, experimenting and knowing.” Partnering to conduct research with an expert in such diverse fields led to a richness in perspective and approach that neither Alice nor Toma had experienced within their own practices and networks of collaborators.

Export data to produce the animation was provided by the following sources: USDA Foreign Agriculture Service Cotton Production Report, USSR trade yearbooks,USDA Foreign Agriculture Service PSD database, and the MIT Observatory of Economic Complexity.  This data is not perfect nor complete for every republic for every year. In addition to incomplete reporting, political influences like those during Uzbekistan’s cotton scandal (1976-1983) are likely to have caused claims of incorrect (typically inflated) production yields.  For the purposes of the virtual water demonstration intended by the animation, best practical methods were applied to provide continuous export estimates across the time period 1960-2016.