The hidden cost of land acquisition

A-AO_Lake_Turkana_dry.jpgAs a result of water grabbing for large-scale irrigation, the predicted drop in water levels will leave this part of Lake Turkana dry © K Avery

With the recent rise in foreign investment for land in Africa, is greater insight and policy intervention needed on the impact on water access and rights for local communities?

Over the last decade, rising food and fuel prices, coupled with increasing pressure on water resources, has resulted in large-scale land acquisitions by nations that have traditionally depended on imports to meet their food needs. According to global estimates by the International Land Coalition, 57 million ha of land have been leased in Africa to foreign investors since 2007. Referred to as ‘land grabbing’, the trend has sparked a passionate debate in media and academic circles, and prompted considerable research on the implications for human rights. In contrast, however, relatively little attention has been paid to how land acquisitions impact on water access for those living nearby or further downstream.

The issue of ‘water grabbing’ is a not a simple one. Water flows from one place to another and its availability varies, affected by the seasons, human use, or climate change. In addition, rights, access and uses are complex and varied. Who has the right to the water in a river: the people who live near it; the farmers who use it for irrigation; those living upstream or downstream; or all of these?

A valuable ‘freebie’

It is well documented that need for water is one of the prime drivers of the global rush to acquire land. Even a cursory look at the global ‘water stress index’ (published annually by risk analysis firm Maplecroft), shows clearly why countries such as China, India and South Korea, along with oil-rich Gulf states, are racing to buy land in developing countries and grow crops abroad. Yet despite the fact that land without water is generally useless, most land deal contracts do not explicitly mention water usage. “With the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it,” writes former CEO of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe in the magazine, Foreign Policy. “In most countries [this is] essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal.”

In cases where foreign investors do make an explicit demand for water rights, a study by the International Institute of Environmental Development has found that governments generally comply without the consultation of the land owners. In other cases, where investors pay to use water, they are often charged according to how much land is irrigated rather than how much water is used.

Often, the boundaries between legality and illegality, when claiming rights to water, are obscure and questions of jurisdiction unclear. In Ghana, according to research by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the separation of land and water rights has resulted in pre-existing customary water rights being abolished and ownership, management and control of water being placed under the authority of the State. As a result, large-scale land acquisitions have resulted in poor farmers being displaced, with very little compensation paid, and losing access to both land and water, a pattern that IWMI has also observed in Mali.

A ‘damming’ issue

Land deals and water usage not only impact on local communities but also on downstream users. In Ethiopia, the Gibe III dam, due to be completed by the end of 2014, will enable irrigation of 150,000 ha that the government has allocated to investors. Downstream, however, lies Kenya’s Lake Turkana, on which half a million people depend. According to a 2012 report by the African Studies Centre at Oxford University, reduced water flows caused by the damming project could lower the level of the lake by 8 m within 10 years. “Ultimately, the 6,400 sq km lake could shrink to two small lakes,” says Sean Avery, a Nairobi-based hydrologist who studied the impact of the dam project for the African Development Bank. Writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, he continues, “The picture that emerges from these predictions bears a striking resemblance to the Aral Sea, which was once the world’s fourth-largest inland water body. And yet, no feasibility studies or social and environmental impact assessments have been published.” (The Aral Sea in Central Asia is reported to have shrunk by 90% over the last 50 years as a result of diverting river water to irrigate and increase Soviet cotton production). Reduced water levels will impact not only on the people dependent on Lake Turkana but also the remaining wildlife, which are already in serious decline.

In response, Berhanu Kebede, Ethiopian ambassador in London, also quoted in the Guardian, strongly refuted the University of Oxford study, stating that Lake Turkana will not lose a considerable amount of water and that the dam will permit the rational management of water in the Omo River basin. The Tana Delta, an estuarine region of Kenya, is home to subsistence farmers, fishers and pastoralists who have traditionally shared its fragile land and water resources through delicately balanced agreements. In recent years, however, the flood plain has been marked by the Kenyan government as ‘unused’ and included in Kenya’s national development plan for expansion of large-scale, irrigated agriculture. The recent unrest in the Delta region, as local people fight against the selling of their land and resettlement of communities, has highlighted the risks when governments ignore complex social realities and arrangements that may have evolved over generations to maintain a wide diversity of water-dependent livelihoods.

What needs to be done?

From a legal perspective, while a complex array of national and international laws governing water allocation currently exists, investors frequently target African countries where national legislation on water rights is either non-existent, vaguely defined or weakly enforced. Yet, without adequate regulation and enforcement, the bargaining power of local communities is nearly always less than that of the foreign investor, who is generally supported by the government. To ensure that future land acquisitions adequately consider crop water requirements and likely impacts on the livelihoods of smallholder users and the ecosystem, new institutional arrangements are needed, says Tim Williams, IWMI’s Africa director. “For these arrangements to be effective and workable, they must be based on social, political and economic realities, which requires integrated and coordinated input from the different land and water agencies, rigorous water use impact assessments and a recognition of the rights of existing land and water users,” he adds.

In addition, local water management should be promoted, with African governments and donors investing in sustainable water management systems. These would include water harvesting, storage, use of wastewater and small-scale irrigation that would benefit smallholders while managing land and water resources in a sustainable way. According to Citigroup chief economist Willem Buiter, “Water will eventually become the single most important physical commodity-based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” Given the accelerating pace of land - and water - acquisition, securing access to water for rural communities will therefore become an increasingly urgent priority.

Susanna Thorp

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