Foreign “land grabs” risk draining Africa dry, warns report

June 14, 2012

By Emma Batha

In the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, the power-hungry villain wasn’t seeking to control supplies of gold or oil but another commodity that some argue could one day be far more precious – water.

Not so long ago it would have seemed far-fetched to suggest water might ever be worth more than oil. But as the world population continues to soar, so does the demand for water to make enough food to feed us – it takes about 1,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of wheat and five to ten times more for 1kg of meat.

The problem of finding all this water is highlighted in an interesting new report which looks at the recent scramble by foreign investors to snap up millions of hectares of land in Africa to grow crops for export.

GRAIN, an organisation supporting small farmers, argues that hidden behind this rush for land is a worldwide struggle for control over water.

Investors are acquiring vast tracts of land for growing crops for food and biofuels in countries including Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mali and Senegal.

But GRAIN says there simply isn’t enough water to irrigate all this newly acquired land and warns the continent could ultimately be drained dry if the deals continue.

Africa could be heading for “hydrological suicide”, says GRAIN’s co-founder Henk Hobbelink, who co-authored the report Squeezing Africa dry: behind every land grab is a water grab.

Most investor interest is centred on land around Africa’s major rivers, in particular the Nile.

But figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that if all the land leased out in just four countries in the Nile basin – Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan – goes into production their irrigation needs will massively outstrip the amount of water available for all 10 countries in the basin.


Hobbelink says unless the land deals are stopped millions of Africans will lose access to the water sources they rely on for fishing, farming and everyday needs.

In some cases communities are already being moved off land to make way for giant agricultural projects. Others may find their access blocked by new fences, canals and dykes.

Hobbelink says you only have to look at what has happened in India and Saudi Arabia to see the damage caused by huge irrigation projects.

India’s Green Revolution, which boosted grain production in the 1960s, has saved millions from hunger, but underground water reserves have plunged. Irrigation schemes have also caused salinisation, water-logging and pollution.

In Saudi Arabia, which receives just 100mm (4 inches) of rain a year, the government invested billions of dollars of oil money in the 1980s to pump water from ancient underground aquifers to irrigate a million hectares of wheat. The aquifers have since collapsed and the government is outsourcing its food production abroad, GRAIN says.

Investors from Saudi Arabia and India are among the most high-profile players acquiring land in Africa to grow food to ship back home. The report details other deals by companies from China, UAE, Libya, Qatar, the United States, Britain, France and Canada.

The contracts tend not to contain specific mention of water rights, leaving companies free to build dams and irrigation canals at their discretion, GRAIN says.

“The value is not in the land,” the report quotes one UK-based investor as saying. “The real value is in water.”

The land acquisitions are already increasing tensions in some areas, Hobbelink says.

In southwest Ethiopia armed men recently attacked the operations of a Saudi agricultural development company in Gambela, reportedly killing several workers.

Advocates of land deals and mega irrigation schemes argue that these big investments bring jobs, but Hobbelink says local people employed on foreign projects in Ethiopia are earning just 70 or 80 cents a day.

“This is not about combating hunger and poverty,” GRAIN’s report concludes. “This is theft on a grand scale of the very resources – land and water – which the people and communities of Africa must themselves be able to manage and control….”

For more on this see our report on AlertNet: Land grabs leave Africa facing ‘hydrological suicide’ – report

Photo credit: A Sudanese farmer prepares his land for irrigation on the banks of the river Nile in Khartoum in this photo from November 2009.  REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallh

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