Land Grabs in Africa Are Also Water Grabs


International NGOs and media reports continue to raise the alarm that the global land grabbing phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa is bound to displace rural communities living on the farmland coveted by foreign investors. The charge is being led by Middle Eastern and Asian countries bent on ensuring food supplies and by private investors searching for land to grow biofuels to meet the European Union’s renewable fuel mandate.

The impact threatens to span a far wider scale than just the local displaced populations, because “land acquisitions are also water acquisitions,” Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, writes in Full Planet, Empty Plates: the New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity. That means that African farmers distant from the site of the actual land deals themselves will feel their effects, in the form of decreased access to irrigation water. A natural resource crisis, then, exacerbates the more visible social crisis of land dispossession. Merely mandating that foreign investors pay a steep price for water access — in the name of addressing “environmental externalities” of industrial agriculture — would only serve to confer legitimacy on a scheme that increases the vulnerability of farming communities all over Africa.

The concentration of water resources in the hands of foreign-controlled export-based agriculture fits within the narrative, propagated by global agribusiness, that smallholder agriculture is inefficient. This view conveniently overlooks how the grave inequality in access to agricultural resources is really the driver of rural poverty, and how addressing the struggles faced by marginal areas could in fact benefit farmers’ livelihoods. It is quite frightening that the very development organizations tasked with fighting poverty have converged with agribusiness on this front. And once that narrative gains traction, it only paves the way for further corporate control of the world food system.

As Cornell University Development Sociology professor Philip McMichael writes in his article, “A food regime analysis of the world food crisis”: “Within the terms of the development narrative, rendered more virulent under neoliberalism, the elimination of peasant agriculture is understood to be inevitable. Under such license, agribusiness performs this narrative, supported by development agencies and the institutional rules governing the corporate food regime, essentially viewing peasant agriculture as a barrier to be overcome through the self-fulfilling prophesy of accumulation by dispossession.”

While foreign countries’ pursuit of large-scale monocrop agriculture in Africa certainly may support attempts to legitimize this disastrous style of farming, their pursuit paradoxically also repudiates this same model. India’s main reason for its foray into Africa is that its groundwater has been vastly depleted by the Green Revolution, which introduced new crop technologies to produce bountiful wheat harvests. Hardly is the Green Revolution’s shortcomings more obvious than the fact that, 50 years later, India now has to look elsewhere for food. This should give pause to countries seeking to emulate the Green Revolution, which has wrongly been cast as the quintessential development success story. Indeed, not only did that effort displace many of India’s small-scale farmers, but now its outcome threatens to displace African farmers as India captures African farmland in response to the Green Revolution’s failures.

Nowhere is the uneven distribution of water resources for agriculture more outrageous than in the 2003 Ethiopia famine, as documented by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman in Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. As starvation was plaguing Ethiopia, its farmers could do nothing but watch as the Nile River’s tributaries flowed past their fields. Geopolitical factors had long favored Egypt’s access to that water, denying it to Ethiopia. In fact, rivers beginning in Ethiopia comprise 85 percent of the Nile River. In the colonial era, European powers divided the Nile between Egypt and Sudan, but allocated none to Ethiopia. Later, the U.S., as part of its Cold War strategy, sought to assure Egypt’s water security. And following the Camp David Accords, international lenders continued to reinforce Egypt’s control over the Nile’s waters to main its political stability (it would be interesting to see whether the ouster of Mubarak has altered this calculation).

As land grabs accelerate across Africa today, we must be weary of this history lesson. What an injustice it would be if during a future food crisis, food producers couldn’t access water because it is in the hands of foreign food and biofuel exporters.      

Interestingly, the situation between Egypt and Ethiopia seems to be undergoing a reversal — but not to the benefit of small-scale farmers. As Ethiopia has emerged as one of the hot spots for land grabbing, foreign investors’ demands on water resources may compromise Egypt’s claim on the irrigation water that has long ensured its adequate bread supply, according to Brown’s New York Times Op-Ed.

Cairo was one of dozens of capital cities that witnessed riots in response to the 2008 food price spike, and Egyptians may very well take to the streets again if their bread prices skyrocket as a result of land grabbers’ water-intensive agriculture in neighboring countries. Indeed, that prospect suggests that the ripple effects of these land acquisitions extend to urban food consumers, and not just to the far-off farmers who experience less access to water resources.

Perhaps only when land grabs precipitate the next widespread food crisis, with urban riots just like the ones we saw in 2008, will world leaders receive the wake-up call to halt this disaster.