Expert Commentary

Global land and water grabbing

2013 study from the Polytechnic University of Milan and the University of Virginia on international land and water purchases by nations and corporations.

For the majority of the developed world, water long ago ceased to be something drawn from a nearby well. Even in the mid-1800s, New York and other rapidly growing cities were reaching outward to divert massive quantities of water from far-off rivers, and the process has continued today. Urban sprawl, industrialized agriculture, biofuels, food waste, and population growth have all contributed to humanity’s growing water footprint, and ongoing climate change hasn’t improved the long-term outlook. In response, nations, cities and corporations have adopted a broad range of strategies to “secure” water supplies for present or future needs. Better water management is sometimes involved, but often — as New York City did 150 years ago — water is found elsewhere, be it in deeply buried aquifers or even around the globe.

A 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Global Land and Water Grabbing,” examines the significant growth in international purchases of agricultural land and water rights by private and public entities. As news reports have also suggested — and as experts have noted — developing nations are increasingly seeing large purchases of local lands by foreign investors, raising significant issues of food security, sovereignty, environmental justice and human rights.

The researchers, from the Polytechnic University of Milan and the University of Virginia, used data from a range of sources to better understand the extent and growth of land and freshwater “grabbing.” As the authors note, “global freshwater withdrawals have increased nearly sevenfold in the past century, thereby contributing to an escalating competition for water resources.” The vast majority of this is for agricultural production, so the taking of international lands is primarily a means of obtaining freshwater, be it from rainwater, lakes, rivers or aquifers. (In the study, rainwater is referred to as “green water” and irrigation water as “blue water.”) For the purpose of the study, land grabbing — which is inextricably linked to gaining water rights — is defined as the “transfer of the right to own or use the land from local communities to foreign investors through large-scale land acquisitions.”

Because land is purchased more for its water than the land itself, areas with significant resources are targeted, and the consequences for local populations can be severe. “In the case of Sudan, the grabbed land is often located on the banks of the Blue Nile, a prime location in an otherwise arid region,” the authors write. “The local population is becoming increasingly dependent on food aid and international food subsidies, despite Sudan being a major exporter of food commodities produced by large-scale farmers.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Land grabbing has taken place in at least 62 countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. The total of grabbed land in any one country can be a significant portion of available land — 19.6% in Uruguay, 17.2% in the Philippines and 6.9% in Sierra Leone, for example. The continents most affected by such practices are Africa and Asia; they account for 47% and 33% of the global grabbed area, respectively.
  • “Some countries (e.g., Liberia, Gabon, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Mozambique) exhibit relatively high grabbed-to-cultivated area ratios, which suggests that the grabbed land was not necessarily cultivated before the acquisition but was the result of intense deforestation and land-use change.”
  • “The countries that are affected by the highest rates of total and green water grabbing are Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of Congo; the highest rates of blue water grabbing would occur in Tanzania and Sudan.”
  • “Under the irrigation scenario of maximum productivity, the total grabbed water per unit area is highest in Cameroon and Tanzania (2.68 × 104 m3/ha and 2.03 × 104 m3/ha, respectively). These countries also exhibit the highest rates of blue water grabbing per unit area. The green water grabbing per unit area is highest in Papua New Guinea and Liberia.”
  • Global land and water grabbing currently involves nearly 57 million hectares of land and the taking of up to 454 billion cubic meters per year of water. Of this, 308 billion is green water and 11-146 billion is blue water.
  • Over all, about 60% of the total grabbed water is taken by companies from the United States, the United Arab Emirates, India, the United Kingdom, Egypt, China and Israel. “Through land grabbing these countries can virtually increase their agricultural land by up to several orders of made.”

The researchers conclude that “land and water grabbing are occurring at alarming rates in all continents except Antarctica. The per capita volume of grabbed water often exceeds the water requirements for a balanced diet and would be sufficient to improve food security and abate malnourishment in the grabbed countries.”

Keywords: water,  Asia

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