SOAS University of London

Tributes paid to Professor John Anthony Allan (1937 – 2021)

21 April 2021
Professor Tony Allan

SOAS has paid tribute to Professor John Anthony Allan, better known to most as Tony Allan, who died on 15 April 2021 at the age of 84.

Tony completed his PhD at SOAS in 1971 on water management in Libya. Since then he spent a number of years teaching at SOAS. His work bridged the natural sciences and management where, after his retirement in 2002 he continued to contribute to the study of water resources, supply chain management and trade as Professorial Research Associate in the School of Finance and Management, in addition to being Emeritus Professor at Kings​ College London. He was an interdisciplinary scholar par excellence.

Professor Tony Allan's work was complex, inspiring and interdisciplinary, spanning geography, agriculture, environmental studies, economics, politics and management. As well as excelling in water science and several other disciplines he was master at distilling complex ideas and making them intelligible to a wide audience.  He will probably be remembered most by water scholar colleagues around the world as the inventor of the concept of 'virtual water', for which he received the Stockholm Water Prize – akin to a Nobel prize - in 2008. The concept suggests that when countries import food they implicitly import the water that has been used to produce that food in the country of origin. Sounds complex, but he made the concept accessible by posing simple questions, such as, how much water is in a cup of coffee? His answer: a 30ml expresso shot requires around 140 litres of water to produce (growing, processing, packaging and transporting the beans), yet all but 30ml of that is virtual water. This meant that water-scarce countries like those in the Middle East are able to secure their food supply, and conflicts over regional water allocation can be reduced or avoided.

The 'virtual water' concept has also more generally helped to put across and get accepted, in both academia and in policy, the point that 'water is politics', as testified by some of Tony's PhD students in a SOAS Centennial blog. For many years he convened the SOAS Water Issues Group (later SOAS-KCL Water Issues Group) which organised seminars and published Occasional Papers on 'virtual water' and other International Relations issues regarding water.

Tony's strong sense of justice came through in various ways, including in his research, that was primarily concerned with the inequities and injustice of water distribution, and in his vast experience of supervising of PhD students where he felt the system could be unjust, and the examination process best reformed to create a more dignified and up-lifting process.

Colleagues remember Tony as a remarkable scholar and a warm and generous human being. Several SOAS colleagues working on water were welcomed by him when they joined SOAS. They were struck by his interdisciplinary curiosity, his excitement by new ideas, his passion for water-related research and his sense of justice. He was very encouraging and in scholarly terms always willing and interested in engaging with things that were happening even if it wasn't in his immediate area of focus. It is also remembered that Tony Allan mentioned at every other occasion how his heart was still at SOAS even if the geography department had been moved to King's. 

He will be greatly missed by everyone who benefitted from his attentiveness to the work going on around him, as well as his own ground-breaking contributions.

Staff pay tribute to Professor Tony Allan

"I was aware of Tony's reputation as one of the world's leading authorities on water security and conservation before I met him.  However, I came to know him well when I was organising the Edith Penrose Centenary Conference and I was keen to speak to colleagues that knew and worked with Edith Penrose during her tenure at SOAS. Tony was extremely generous with his time and I quickly came to realise that while his area of research was water security he had extensive knowledge of supply chain management, trade, political economy and the Middle East. He supported the idea of the Edith Penrose Centenary Conference and the subsequent establishment of the annual Penrose Lectures in her honour with enthusiasm and great affection, attending the conference, book launch, all of the lectures and the Edith Penrose Special Event held in October last year. Not only that, but after each event he wrote a letter of thanks saying how valuable he found the event. On one occasion he sent photos that he had taken with his phone, adding, "The session deserved a better camera."  Of course, the photos were fine. But that was his way, as well as being a world class scholar, he was also the most unassuming and humble man I have ever known. I will miss him dearly - it was always a pleasure to meet him in the SOAS common room and chat on matters of the environment and political economy.  SOAS and the world have lost an outstanding academic."

Professor Christine Oughton, Professor of Management Economics and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, SOAS


"The first time I met Tony Allan was in the second half of the 1990s when teaching a course on 'Irrigation and Development' in Wageningen University, the Netherlands, which was an effort to look at water resources management from a socio-political perspective. Tony had recently published his work on 'virtual water' and we invited him to talk about that idea, which so eminently and accessibly made the 'water is politics' point. By encouraging me to apply for a position at KCL in the early 2000s he triggered me to think about my academic career in a new way. The application was not successful, but the encouragement was influential. When starting at SOAS in 2010 Tony was equally supportive in trying to get off the ground new research and teaching collaboration at SOAS around water issues. While international relations are no longer the defining perspective of that collaboration as it was during his tenure, the study of water governance, water politics and water and development at SOAS is strongly indebted to Tony Allan's pioneering work."

Professor Peter Mollinga, Professor of Development Studies and Director of the Centre for Water and Development, SOAS


"I met Tony shortly after my joining SOAS in 2012 because of my interest in water policy. His reputation as an excellent scholar preceded him, but what I did not expect was to encounter one of the kindest hearts that I have ever met. In the following years we met on various occasions, especially at seminars organised at the SOAS Centre for Water and Development. I was always amazed by his passionate dedication, genuine interest and intellectual curiosity. SOAS will miss you terribly."

Dr Alberto Asquer, Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management, SOAS


"The very best and warmest of colleagues and friends, and a committed trade unionist with both human and humane touches."

Ben Fine, Emeritus Professor, Department of Economics, SOAS


"I was very saddened to hear of Tony's passing and just wanted to pay my respects to him and his family. I took Tony's Water and Development course during my BA Development Studies and Geography at SOAS in the late 1990s. His classes were inspiring and thought-provoking and he himself approachable, passionate and engaging. His lectures and work have stayed with me all this time, both personally as I teach my children the concept of virtual water, and professionally as I deepen my understanding of taking a systems approach to the food system and sustainable development. It was he and his fellow colleagues at SOAS who turned me into the person I am today. I was honoured to meet him again a few years ago and introduced myself as one of his old students. I didn’t expect him to remember me, but he responded with his broad smile and graciously chatted about food systems and of course 1990s SOAS. He has left a great legacy and will be missed by so many. My sincere condolences go to his family."

Dr Annabel de Frece, Senior Teaching Fellow in Sustainable Development, SOAS

An online book of condolence has also been set up on - https://www.remembr.com/professor.tony.allan