Grabs for land include water

A paper on the impact of so called ‘land grabbing’ on freshwater resources has recently been published. Authored by researchers at the University of Virginia and the Polytechnic University of Milan, it is the first assessment of the amount of water appropriated within land investment deals.

Land is thought to be in short supply while at the same time demand for food, livestock and biofuels is growing, driven by population growth, changing diets and increasing food and oil prices. In an effort to ensure national food and energy security some countries over the past decade have been buying up land in other countries on which to grow crops and livestock. The World Bank has estimated that around 45 million hectares of land has been purchased since 2008 involving 62 countries doing the ‘grabbing’ in 41 countries across every continent except Antarctica.

Land grabs have hit the headlines and received strong criticism when large-scale land investments have proven to be inequitable and unsustainable. Problems include the reduction in natural resource access for local land users, displacement of local inhabitants without compensation and without the creation of job opportunities or consideration for the environment. Indeed in many places land that was a natural landscape or dominated by smallholder farming is transformed to large-scale commercial farming. In Ethiopia residents are thought to have been moved to new villages lacking adequate food and water resources to make way for the lease of land to foreign investors. Indeed where 100% rights over natural resources such as water are part of the deal both environmental sustainability and the livelihoods of local land users are negatively impacted. This has been seen in Sudan where land deals around the Blue Nile have affected local water users further downstream.

But not all land deals are land grabs: the 2011 Tirana conference of the International Land Coalition defined land grabbing as “land acquisitions that are in violation of human rights, without prior consent of the pre-existing land users, and with no consideration of the social and environmental impacts.” There are examples where foreign investment, if conducted democratically and transparently, can bring new wealth to the country and provide opportunities such as access to technologies. This new paper looked exclusively at land grabs but with a broader definition than that above, “the transfer of the right to own or use the land from local communities to foreign investors through large-scale land acquisitions (more than 200 ha per deal)”.

Like land, freshwater resources are in short supply with an estimated 1.2 billion people living in areas of physical water scarcity. This new paper asks the question, when international land is acquired how much water, required to grow food either through rainfall or irrigation, is included in these deals? And the answer is surprising. The countries seeing the highest rates of grabbed water are Indonesia, the Philippines, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Sudan while the companies doing the water grabbing are most often located in the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, United Kingdom, Egypt, China and Israel. The total amount of water grabbed for 47 x 106 hectares of land (around 90% of the reported land grabbed in the world) equals about 0.31 x 1012 m3 per year of green water (rainwater) and up to 0.14 × 1012 m3 per year of blue water (irrigation water). Per person this is often more than the water required for a balanced diet and if available to the local population could “improve food security and abate malnourishment in the grabbed countries”.

There is hope that the future of land deals will be fairer and more transparent with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) having created Voluntary Guidelines on the Governance of Tenure, which set out principles and standards for responsible governance of tenure over natural resources. Ensuring the benefits of foreign investment are felt by the residents and smallholder farmers will be critical as land grabs look set to continue.

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