2020 Green Templeton Lecture Series – Dr. Jampel Dell’Angelo on the Water Wars myth

“Globalisation and the grabbed commons: New insights on the Water Wars myth”, delivered by Dr. Jampel Dell’Angelo, is the second talk in the 2020 Green Templeton Lecture Series on the Future of the Commons, convened by Research Fellow Dr Dustin Garrick.

Jampel Dell'angelo 2

Lecture report

Green Templeton’s Stew Motta, MSc Water Science, Policy & Management, reports from the evening:

On the 6th of February Green Templeton College had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Jampel Dell’Angelo (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) for the second lecture in the ongoing series ‘The Future of the Commons’ at the EP Abraham Lecture Theatre. The final talk in this series will be given by the series convener Dr. Dustin Garrick, as he caps off the lecture series with “On the knife’s edge of tragedy and hope: markets and the commons in a divided world”.

Professor Tine de Moor (University of Utrecht) kicked off the ‘The Future of the Commons’ series last month with a historical look at the commons and collective action. Professor Dell’Angelo turned the attention of the commons to the present and the world’s pending water wars. Dell’Angelo argued that nationstates clashing over water isn’t likely and that global trends are towards more cooperation than conflict (Wolf 2007). Many countries have been able to avoid water related conflict through the art of what Tony Allan deemed ‘virtual water’, where water in one country can be used to grow products and then these are shipped to another location for consumption.

Virtual water revisited

One might only need 8 oz of water to brew a cup of coffee, but it took 140-200 liters of virtual water imports getting that coffee grown and to your supermarket. This system of virtual water trade is a compelling argument to why nationstates, especially those in arid areas, haven’t gone to war, by instead trading around their scarcity. Indeed, many water scarce countries are virtual water exporters.

While this arrangement has reduced the risk of water wars, Dell’Angelo argues that it has also hidden the social costs and conflicts that arise at sub-national levels. Water conflict happens, but between corporations, communities, and local governments. This could also be viewed as an example of ‘cost-shifting’ onto weaker social groups.

The U.K. is a majority virtual water consumer, so where is all of this water coming from? What moral obligations does society have when importing from water scarce countries in North Africa? Whose land and water was used to produce those goods?

Land & water grabs

The supply side of virtual water has been accomplished through large scale land acquisitions (LSLAs). These LSLAs have occurred at such a rate to be deemed a ‘Global Land Rush’, however it is not just about the land per se, but importantly, land that comes with water. Where is all of this vacant land that comes complete with water resources? There isn’t any. Instead, these LSLAs are systematically converting common resources. These shared and often productive multi-use resources, governed by traditional systems, are coming up against industrial production across the globe. We are witnessing a clash of cultures and with it, there are winners and losers.

Commons can be resilient and sustainable through institutions (Ostrom 2000). However, the commons are more susceptible to LSLAs due to their lack of private ownership and the accompanying power asymmetries benefitting the ‘grabbers’. The traditional systems, uses and values that govern the commons are under threat from large and incharge actors of globalization.

As land and water grabs continue to target the commons, it is in many cases that the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of people are bearing the brunt of the costs. Virtual water might balance trade between states, but it does not account for which groups in society are losing their collective land and water. Throughout the talk the role of environmental justice and its current absence in the virtual water debate was a prime focus.

Virtual water and arid malnutrition

Dell’Angelo and his team set out to explore this further by examining LSLAs on a global scale and found a significant amount of LSLAs in areas that have both water scarcity and malnutrition. While this doesn’t necessarily eliminate access to drinking water, which is a small percentage of consumption, it does put pressure on their ability to grow food. The findings of their work on global LSLAs “show that the majority of deals are in countries that have either high levels of water scarcity or high levels of malnourishment; moreover, about one third of the deals that are under contract are in countries that have both” (Dell’Angelo et al., 2018).

Large multinationals and political elite do profit from these arrangements and in many cases it can be within a national interest. These findings do raise serious ethical concerns around exporting water away from communities dealing with water scarcity, malnutrition, or both. The nationstates aren’t going to war over water, but this approach to agricultural production will shift conflicts and risks down to the community level and the poor.

Conflict as a signal

One of the concluding thoughts was on the role of conflict. While the focus has been on avoiding water wars between nationstates, this is a narrow view of how and where water conflict occurs. The shifting of conflicts to more hidden locations is often done with high levels of coercion. Prof. Dell’Angelo pointed out that when LSLAs or large scale environmental degradation is occurring, there should naturally be conflict as people defend their livelihoods, social networks, traditional knowledge and food security. The more concerning land and water grabs are those that happen around the world without a sound. The power imbalances and coercion are so strong that traditional ways of commons management are disappearing without a trace. It is not conflict that we need to be wary of, it is silence.

Stew Motta
MSc Water Science, Policy & Management
School of Geography & the Environment


  • Dell’Angelo, J., D’Odorico, P., Rulli, M.C. and Marchand, P., 2017. The tragedy of the grabbed commons: coercion and dispossession in the global land rush. World Development, 92, pp.1-12.
  • Dell’Angelo, J., Rulli, M.C. and D’Odorico, P., 2018. The global water grabbing syndrome. Ecological Economics, 143, pp.276-285.
  • Ostrom, E., 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge university press.
  • Wolf, A. T. (2007). Shared waters: Conflict and cooperation. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour., 32, 241-269.

About the Green Templeton Lecture Series

The Green Templeton Lectures series takes place annually. The 2020 series is convened by Research Fellow Dr Dustin Garrick on the theme of the Future of the Commons.The lecture series explores the commons in a world approaching peak population, deepening inequality, and growing threats to democratic forms of governance. The series follows an arc that starts with lessons from the history of the commons, and outlines the frontiers of research and innovation. The series contributes to a University-wide and global dialogue on the next wave of the commons, charting emerging governance innovations for a connected world.

Further lectures in the series

Wednesday 4 March – On the knife’s edge of tragedy and hope: markets and the commons in a divided world

Created: 18 February 2020