What does virtual water conceal? This article synthesizes political ecology with ecological economics to question the understanding of the scientific concept of virtual water as part of an independent objective reality, rather than as a construction supported by pre-existing ideas. The discourse promoting both the concept of virtual water and the methodologies used to estimate virtual water flows is structured according to some underlying ideas that are framed within market logic and the rationality of international trade. Consequently, it produces a representation of water as a factor of production that does not challenge the hegemonic construction of water scarcity in nature, and proposes a water management system the main purpose of which is to maximize efficiency in the use of the resource. We reveal the ideas underlying the virtual water concept to show how a critical approach to ecological economics can be complemented by political ecology theories. In this article, we use epistemological reflection as a starting point, with the specific objective of contrasting this reflection with the reality of water in the horticultural sector of Almería (southern Spain), in order to bring to light those aspects made invisible through the use of the virtual water indicator in a concrete case study.
Maria J. Beltrán and Esther Velázquez
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