The banks of the Niger river, in southern Mali, have been flooded by a
steady stream of foreigners. Coveted by foreign investors eager to snap up
large tracts of fertile farmland, the river basin has been at the centre of
a race to get hold of African land at rock-bottom prices. Meanwhile, last
week, hundreds of smallholder farmers and civil society activists flocked to
the same river basin for the first international conference to tackle the
global rush for land.
West Africa's largest river, the Niger is thought to sustain over
100-million people as it snakes 4,180km through Mali and Niger before
emptying into Nigeria's colossal Niger Delta. In Mali, the Office du Niger
is home to the vast majority of the country's largescale land deals, seen by
campaigners as emblematic of the "land grabs" taking place in developing
countries. Recent estimates suggest that foreign investment in Mali's
limited arable land jumped by 60% between 2009 and 2010. But the potential
knock-on effects of these land deals on local communities' access to water
has rarely made it centre-stage.
Ongoing research from the London-based International Institute for
Environment and Development seeks to redress this blindspot, honing in on
how such land deals might affect water access for fishing, farming and
pastoralist communities. In a policy paper out on Thursday, the IIED's Jamie
Skinner and Lorenzo Cotula warn that an alarming number of African
governments seem to be signing away water rights for decades, with major
implications for local communities.
Investors in farmland are, understandably, after land with high growing
potential -- either land with lots of rainfall or land that can be
irrigated. What Skinner and Cotula note is a worrying trend where
governments are being rushed into signing away water rights during
negotiations where they were initially only considering leasing land.
In many cases, say Skinner and Cotula, governments seem willing to simply
provide water free of charge. In Mali and Sudan, for example, some investors
have been given unrestricted access to as much water as they need. In other
cases, where investors must pay to use water, they are often charged
according to how much land is irrigated rather than how much water is used.
The role water plays in fuelling the global rush for land has received
significant attention. It is no coincidence, observers say, that the most
aggressive foreign investors are also those facing water shortages at home.
This year, risk analysis firm Maplecroft said the results from its water
stress index showed why India, South Korea and China, along with the oil
rich Gulf states, are racing to buy land in developing countries and grow
crops abroad. The chairperson and former CEO of Nestlé, Peter
Brabeck-Letmathe, has gone so far as to say the global rush for farmland is
actually a "great water grab". He writes in Foreign Policy: "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
But the effect of these deals on local communities' water access has been a
black hole in the debate around land grabs. And it is a severe omission,
according to Skinner and Cotula, who stress how long-term contractural
commitments with investors can jeopardise water access not only for those
living near the agricultural investments but also for those living
downstream. "When land is assigned to private investors, the deal only
impacts directly on existing users of that land," they explain. "Allocating
water to irrigated agriculture potentially affects a much broader range of
A 2011 report from researchers at the University of Manchester highlights
similar concerns: "Impacts are likely to be far more extensive than might be
anticipated from the area of land occupied ... restriction or interruption
of flows of water in an area occupied in one part of the landscape will have
potentially widespread downstream impacts."
According to the IIED paper, in some cases estimates of potential water
requirements have run so large that major dam projects are being considered
to ensure supply. The controversial Gibe III dam in Ethiopia, for example,
will help irrigate 150 000 hectares that the government has allocated to
investors. A report published by the African Development Bank says the
project could lower the water level of Kenya's Lake Turkana, on which around
half a million people depend, by eight metres by 2024.