Those who have been buying up vast stretches of African farmland in recent years, whether based in Dubai or London City, understand that it’s the access to water that they get from the land deals, which they often get for free and without restriction, that may well be worth the most over the long-term. “The value is not in the land,” says Neil Crowder, whose UK-based company, Chayton Capital, has been acquiring farmland in Zambia. “The real value is in water.”
And water is abundant in Africa, according to those behind the hundreds of large farmland deals that have been signed across Africa. They say the continent’s water resources are vastly under-utilised, and they want to harness them for their agriculture projects. But the reality is that a third of Africans already live in water-scarce environments and climate change is going to up these numbers significantly. A closer look at where these deals are taking place and how much water they plan to consume shows that the projects will rob millions of people of their access to water and risk to deplete the continent’s most precious fresh water sources.
Few countries in Africa have received more foreign interest in their farmland than those served by the Nile River. The Nile, Africa’s longest river, is a lifeline especially for Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda, and already a source of significant geopolitical tensions aggravated by the numerous large-scale irrigation projects that have been undertaken in the region. Back in 1959, Great Britain brokered a colonial deal that divided the water rights between Sudan (a bit) and Egypt (a lot), and no one else. Massive irrigation schemes were built in both countries to grow cotton for export to the UK. In the 1960s, Egypt built the mighty Aswan Dam to regulate the flow of the Nile in Egypt and increase irrigation possibilities. The dam achieved both, but it also stopped the flow of nutrients and minerals that fertilised the downstream soils of Egypt’s farmers.
This economically, ecologically and politically fragile Nile basin is now the target of a new wave of large-scale agriculture projects. Three of the main countries in the basin, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Sudan have, together, already leased out millions of hectares in the basin and are offering more. To bring this land into production, all of it will need to be irrigated. Ethiopia is the source of some 80% of the Nile water. In its Gambela region on the border with South Sudan, corporations such as Karuturi from India and Saudi Star from Saudi Arabia are already building big irrigation channels that will massively increase Ethiopia’s withdrawal of water from the Nile. And these are just two of the actors involved. One calculation suggests that if all the land that the country has leased out is brought under production and irrigation it will increase the country’s use of freshwater resources for agriculture by a factor of nine.
Further downstream, in South Sudan and Sudan, some 4.9 million hectares of land has been leased out to foreign corporations since 2006. That is more than the size of the whole of the Netherlands. And further up north, Egypt is also leasing out land and implementing its own new irrigation projects. Of course, it remains to be seen how much of all this will actually be brought into production and under irrigation, but it is difficult to imagine that the Nile can handle this onslaught.
Reliable figures on how much irrigation is actually possible and sustainable are difficult to find. The FAO, in various publications and in its Aquastat database, gives figures on ‘irrigation potential’ and actual irrigation by country and river basin. FAO establishes 8 million hectares as the total ‘maximum value’ available for total irrigation in all 10 countries of the Nile basin. But the 4 countries mentioned above already have irrigation infrastructure established for 5.4 million hectares and have now leased out a further 8.6 million hectares of land where irrigation will be developed.
Another part of Africa targeted by agribusiness is the lands along the Niger River, West Africa’s biggest river. Mali, Niger and Nigeria are the countries most dependent on the river, but seven other countries in the Niger basin share its water. It is also extremely fragile as it has suffered from man-made interventions such as dams, irrigation and pollution. Water experts estimate that the volume of the Niger has shrunk by one-third during the last three decades alone. Others indicate that the river might lose another third of its flow as a consequence of climate change.
In Mali, the river spreads out into a vast inland delta which constitutes Mali’s main agricultural zone and one of the region’s most important wetlands. It is here that the ‘Office du Niger’ is located and where many of the land grabbing projects are concentrated. The Office du Niger presides over the irrigation of over 70,000 ha, mainly for the production of rice. It is the largest irrigation scheme in West Africa, and it uses a substantial part of all the river’s water, especially during the dry season.
Back in the 1990s, the FAO put Mali’s potential to irrigate from the Niger at a bit over half a million ha. But now, due to increased water scarcity, independent experts conclude that the whole of Mali has the water capacity to irrigate only 250,000 ha. Yet the Malian government has already signed away 470,000 ha to foreign companies from Libya, China, the UK, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the past few years, and is offering much more.
The Nile and the Niger basins are just two of the areas where land and water rights are massively being given away. The areas where land grabbing is concentrated in Africa coincide almost completely 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 sugar-cane 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’s biggest desert lake, fed by the Omo River, Lake Turkana.
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.
If this land and water grab is not put to an end, millions of Africans are going to lose access to water sources which they need for their livelihoods, as they are moved out of the areas where land/water deals have been agreed to, or simply see the access to their traditional water sources blocked by newly built fences, canals and dikes that are owned by someone else.
There is simply not enough water in Africa’s rivers and water tables to provide irrigation for all of the large-scale agriculture projects that foreign companies are pursuing. 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 water logging wherever they have been applied.
Africa is in no shape for such an imposition. Over one in three Africans live with water scarcity, and the continent’s food production is set to suffer more than any other from climate change. The 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-demanding crops for export can never 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, and by strengthening collective and customary rights over land and water sources.