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In my post “The Vicious Price/Demand Cycle of Peak Oil & Blackouts in Greece” I mentioned the global land grabs occurring, primarily in Third World countries, by corporations and ‘developed’ countries in order to secure the resources to feed their nation’s citizens and extract profit. These resource appropriations take place at the expense of local, indigenous people who have farmed the land in a sustainable way for centuries if not thousands of years. The bottom line of these land grabs is to get control of the water resources connected to the land. The non-profit organization called GRAIN published an excellent article today explaining this theft in great detail. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. Also worth reading is “The Land Grabbers: The New Fight Over Who Owns the Earth” by Fred Pearce, an excerpt of which was published today at Salon.com.

Although all the countries who practice industrial monoculture farming and factory farming are unsustainable and depleting their fresh water resources faster than they are being replenished by natural rainwater/snowmelt, Saudi Arabia is the most severe example:

…perhaps the situation is nowhere more dramatic than in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has no rain or rivers to speak of, but possesses vast ‘fossil water’ aquifers beneath the desert. During the 1980s the Saudi government invested $40 billion of its oil revenues to pump this precious water to irrigate a million hectares of wheat. Later, in the 1990s, in order feed the growing industrial dairy farms that popped up across the desert, many farmers switched to alfalfa, a crop that needs even more water. It was clear that the miracle couldn’t last; the aquifers soon collapsed and the government decided to outsource its food production to Africa and other parts of the world instead. Some 60% of the country’s fossil water under the desert was squandered in the process. Gone and lost forever.

As Saudi Arabia uses its oil wealth to procure resources abroad, so is China doing the same with the wealth generated from its success as an exporter and the huge trade surplus it has built up:

With forests and fish stocks declining, water demand rising and lack of action on climate change, humanity’s path is anything but sustainable, the UN warns. (BBC)

More than 40% of the Earth’s land is used for human needs, including cities and farms; and with the population set to grow by a further two billion by 2050, that figure could soon exceed 50%. Rising demand for resource-expensive foods such as beef could mean it happens by 2025, Prof Barnofsky’s modelling suggests. “It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” he said. “I think that if we want to avoid the most unpleasant surprises, we want to stay away from the 50% mark.

Reading about these land grabs by resource hungry wealthy countries who practice industrialized farming makes me think of the following quote and how little time we have left before mass starvation on a global scale occurs:

Is Our Agricultural System About to Collapse

I’ve written before about what exactly it means to have an unsustainable agricultural system: If our current system doesn’t change, then one day it will collapse, and millions — if not billions — will starve. This collapse won’t have been unprecedented; it may, in fact, be an almost inevitable part of a cycle of growth and devastation that humanity has been experiencing since the agricultural revolution, as described in a new book, Empires of Foodby the academic Evan D. G. Fraser and the journalist Andrew Rimas.

The book analyzes the agricultural system in places and time periods from Mesopotamia to Rome to the Middle Ages and beyond. It chronicles a disturbingly reliable pattern of agricultural innovation, expansion, and trade that accompanies periods of favorable weather (just as we’ve experienced for the past half-century) and then the horrific implosion of the food system (and the civilization that built it) that always follows because of soil erosion, overpopulation, and climate change. Economic troubles caused by unsound banking practices also usually figure prominently in the demise. Does any of this sound eerily familiar?

What follows are excerpt from the GRAIN article:

Concerning the real reason for the land grabs: Water

“The tensions in south western Ethiopia illustrate the central importance of access to water in the global land rush. Hidden behind the current scramble for land is a world-wide struggle for control over water. Those who have been buying up vast stretches of farmland in recent years, whether they are based in Addis Ababa, Dubai or London, understand that the access to water they gain, often included for free and without restriction, may well be worth more over the long-term, than the land deals themselves.

In recent years, Saudi Arabian companies have been acquiring millions of hectares of lands overseas to produce food to ship back home. Saudi Arabia does not lack land for food production. What’s missing in the Kingdom is water, and its companies are seeking it in countries like Ethiopia.

Indian companies like Bangalore-based Karuturi Global are doing the same. Aquifers across the sub-continent have been depleted by decades of unsustainable irrigation. The only way to feed India’s growing population, the claim is made, is by sourcing food production overseas, where water is more available.

“The value is not in the land,” says Neil Crowder of UK-based Chayton Capital which has been acquiring farmland in Zambia. “The real value is in water.” [1]

And companies like Chayton Capital think that Africa is the best place to find that water. The message repeated at farmland investor conferences around the globe is that water is abundant in Africa. It is said that Africa’s water resources are vastly under utilised, and ready to be harnessed for export oriented agriculture projects.

The reality is that a third of Africans already live in water-scarce environments and climate change is likely to increase these numbers significantly. Massive land deals could rob millions of people of their access to water and risk the depletion of the continent’s most precious fresh water sources.

All of the land deals in Africa involve large-scale, industrial agriculture operations that will consume massive amounts of water. Nearly all of them are located in major river basins with access to irrigation. They occupy fertile and fragile wetlands, or are located in more arid areas that can draw water from major rivers. In some cases the farms directly access ground water by pumping it up. These water resources are lifelines for local farmers, pastoralists and other rural communities. Many already lack sufficient access to water for their livelihoods. If there is anything to be learnt from the past, it is that such mega-irrigation schemes can not only put the livelihoods of millions of rural communities at risk, they can threaten the freshwater sources of entire regions. (See Water mining, the wrong type of farming and Death of the Aral Sea)”

In the not-so-distant future, water will become “the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals,” says Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter.


The Nile and the Niger basins are only two of the examples of the massive give away of land and water rights. The areas where land grabbing is concentrated in Africa coincide closely with the continent’s largest river and lake systems, and in most of these areas irrigation is a prerequisite of commercial production.

The Ethiopian government is constructing a dam in the Omo river, to generate electricity and irrigate a huge sugarcane plantation; a project that threatens hundreds of thousands of indigenous people that depend on the river further downstream. It also threatens to empty the world biggest desert lake, Lake Turkana, fed by the Omo river. In Mozambique the government had signed off on a 30,000 hectares plantation along the Limpopo river which would have directly affected farmers and pastoralists now depending on the water. The project was revoked because the investor didn’t deliver, but the government is looking for others to take over. In Kenya, a tremendous controversy has arisen from the government’s plans to hand out huge areas of land in the delta of the Tana River with disastrous implications for the local communities depending on the delta’s water. The already degraded Senegal river basin and its delta have been subject to hundreds of thousands of hectares in land deals, putting foreign agribusiness in direct competition for the water with local farmers. The list goes on, and is growing by the day. This table shows a selection of the most important cases.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chairman of Nestle, says that these deals are more about water than land: “With the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal.”[8] Nestle is a leading marketer of bottled water under brand names including Pure Life, Perrier, S.Pellegrino and a dozen others. It has been charged with illegal and destructive groundwater extraction, and of making billions of dollars in profits on cheap water while dumping environmental and social costs onto communities. [9]

Asked at an agricultural investment conference whether it is possible to make money from water, Judson Hill of one of the private equity funds involved, was unequivocal: “Buckets, buckets of money,” he told a meeting of bankers and investors in Geneva. “There are many ways to make a very attractive return in the water sector if you know where to go.”

In the not-so-distant future, water will become “the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals,” says Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter.[10] No surprise, then, that so many corporations are rushing to sign land deals that give them wide-ranging control over African water. Especially when African governments are essentially giving it away. Corporations understand what’s at stake. There are “buckets of money” to be made on water, if only it can be controlled and turned it into a commodity. (See Virtual water  and Grabbing carbon credits?)

The secrecy that shrouds land deals makes it hard to know exactly what’s being handed over to foreign companies. But from those contracts that have been leaked or made public, it is apparent that the contracts tend not to contain any specific mention of water rights at all, leaving the companies free to build dams and irrigation canals at their discretion, sometimes with a vague reference to ‘respecting water laws and regulations’.[11]  This is the case in the agreements signed between the Ethiopian government and both Karuturi and Saudi Star in Gambela, for example. In some contracts,  a minor user fee is agreed upon for the water, but without any limitation on the amount of water that can be withdrawn. Only in rare cases are even minimal restrictions imposed during the dry season, when access to water is so critical for local communities. But even in instances where governments may have the political will and capacity to negotiate conditions to protect local communities and the environment, this is made increasingly difficult due to existing international trade and investment treaties that give foreign investors strong rights in this respect.[12]

Stop the water grab

If this land and water grab is not put to an end, millions of Africans will lose access to the water sources they rely on for their livelihoods and their lives. They may be moved out of areas where land and water deals are made or their access to traditional water sources may simply be blocked by newly built fences, canals and dikes. This is already happening in Ethiopia’s Gambela, where the government is forcibly moving thousands of indigenous people out of their traditional territories to make way for export agriculture. By 2013, the government wants to remove 1.5 million people from their territories across Ethiopia.[13] As the bulldozers move into the newly acquired lands, this will become an increasingly common feature in Africa’s rural areas, generating more tensions and conflicts over scarce water resources.

But the impacts will run far beyond the immediately affected communities. The recent wave of land grabbing is nothing short of an environmental disaster in the making. There is simply not enough water in Africa’s rivers and water tables to irrigate all the newly acquired land. If and when they are put under production, these 21st century industrial plantations will rapidly destroy, deplete and pollute water sources across the continent. Such models of agricultural production have generated enormous problems of soil degradation, salinisation and waterlogging wherever they have been applied. India and China, two shining examples that Africa is being pushed to emulate, are now in a water crisis as a result of their Green Revolution practices. Over 200 million people in India and 100 million in China depend on foods produced by the over-pumping of water.[14] Fearing depleted water supplies or perhaps depleted profits, companies from both countries are looking now to Africa for future food production.

Africa is in no shape for such an imposition. More than one in three Africans live with water scarcity, and the continent’s food supplies are set to suffer more than any other’s from climate change. Building Africa’s highly sophisticated and sustainable indigenous water management systems could help resolve this growing crisis, but these are the very systems being destroyed by land grabs.

Advocates of the land deals and mega irrigation schemes argue that these big investments should be welcomed as an opportunity to combat hunger and poverty in the continent. But bringing in the bulldozers to plant water-intensive export crops is not and cannot be a solution to hunger and poverty. If the goal is to increase food production, then there is ample evidence that this can be most effectively done by building on the traditional water management and soil conservation systems of local communities. [15] Their collective and customary rights over land and water sources should be strengthened not trampled.

But this is not about combating hunger and poverty. 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 in order to face the immense challenges they face this century.

Going Further

Fred Pearce, The Landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the Earth,
Eden Project, 2012.
Fred Pearce, When the rivers run dry: What happens when our water runs out? Eden Project, 2006
Transnational Institute (TNI), March 2012 The global water grab: A primer
Oakland Institute, December 2011 ‘Landgrabs leave Africa thirsty
Farmlandgrab.org News and information on large-scale land grabs. Updated daily. Maintained by GRAIN as a research-sharing and monitoring project open to your contributions and participation.