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Leasing Land, Leasing Water

The Nile River Basin serves many African countries and is at the heart of regional water agreements.
The Nile River Basin serves many African countries and is at the heart of regional water agreements.
Joe DeCapua

A new report says land acquisitions in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America have sharply increased since the 2007/2008 food crisis. Some fear the investments by foreign countries and private corporations could lead to regional tensions over water rights.

The Stockholm International Water Institute released the report at the 6th World Water Forum in Marseille, France. (3/12-17/2012) The study -- Land Acquisitions: How will they impact transboundary waters? -- says there is very little systematic analysis of land investment.

The World Bank estimates nearly 60 million hectares of land in Africa were leased in 2009 – and over 200 million hectares leased in developing countries overall in the past 10 years.

The land is being used not only to grow food, but crops for biofuels as well.

Who’s who?

“There is a range of actors. India and China are big in these land acquisitions, but also European and U.S. companies are making investments. Other big actors are some of the water-short countries in the Middle East – Jordan, Arab Emirates and so forth. Even northern European ones, such as my own country Sweden, have companies that are investing in these African lands,” said Anders Jagerskog, the institute’s director of applied research and co-author of the report.

Since all the leases are not readily available for public inspection, Jagerskog says it’s difficult to know just how many African countries are involved.

“I know that there’s been [a] fair degree of investments in Sudan and Ethiopia, also in Mozambique, Madagascar, Nigeria and a country like Liberia, in relative terms at least, that has been leasing a lot of its land. Some figures say up to 60 percent of its Agricultural land has been leased, although that may be on the high end of the estimates,” he said.

Water rights

The report says land investment is a water investment. So do countries leasing the land automatically have rights to the water?

“Often we have found that water is presumed to be included in the contract without explicitly mentioning it in these land lease agreements. And that has a lot of implications for land and water rights in these areas and these countries, which may have [an] effect on [the] national level, for pastoralists and so forth, but even moreso perhaps on an international level. In river basins, some of these land leases have occurred, and the implications have not been taken into account in river basin organizations or the equivalent of those,” said Jagerskog.

In many cases indigenous people, who’ve lived on these lands for generations, have not been consulted about the land leases.

“There could be a positive spin to all these investments – technological transfer, foreign direct investment that, if managed in a good way, boost the economies of these African countries. But the evidence seems to point in the other direction. That these deals are not necessarily that good for the countries that are seeing these investments,” he said.

The Stockholm International Water Institute report recommends that international principles be followed in land leasing. It says this would help protect host countries and local populations. It says while the land deals could help ensure food security in countries leasing the land, they also run the risk of creating food insecurity in the host countries.

What’s more, a land deal signed by one country could have detrimental effects on the water rights of neighboring countries.

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