The Alwero river in Ethiopia’s Gambela region provides both sustenance and identity for the indigenous Anuak people who have fished its waters and farmed its banks and surrounding lands for centuries. Some Anuak are pastoralists, but most are farmers who move to drier areas in the rainy season before returning to the river banks. This seasonal agricultural cycle helps nurture and maintain soil fertility. It also helps structure the culture around the collective repetition of traditional cultivation practices related to rainfall and rising rivers as each community looks after its own territory and the waters and farmlands within it.
"The value is not in the land," says Neil Crowder of UK-based Chayton Capital which has been acquiring farmland in Zambia. "The real value is in water.” 
And companies like Chayton Capital think that Africa is the best place to find that water. The message repeated at farmland investor conferences around the globe is that water is abundant in Africa. It is said that Africa’s water resources are vastly under utilised, and ready to be harnessed for export oriented agriculture projects.
Across the border, in India, the situation is possibly even more dramatic. Pumped water from boreholes dug deep into the ground watered India’s Green Revolution. The thirsty new varieties and crops that replaced the indigenous farming systems brought the country's groundwater consumption to dangerous and totally unsustainable heights. Recent estimates put India's annual abstraction for irrigation at 250 cubic kilometres per year, about 100 cubic kilometres more than what is replaced by rains. As a result, India's underground water reserves are plunging, forcing farmers to drill deeper every year. All together, a quarter of India's crops are grown using underground water that is not replenished.
The situation isn't all that much better in the US. The maize and soybean plantations that dominate the country's mid-west have already caused the water table to fall substantially. California, with its endless fruit plantations, pumps 15% more water than the rains replenish. But perhaps the situation is nowhere more dramatic than in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has no rain or rivers to speak of, but posesses vast 'fossil water' aquifers beneath the desert. During the 1980s the Saudi government invested $40 billion of its oil revenues to pump this precious water to irrigate a million hectares of wheat. Later, in the 1990s, in order feed the growing industrial dairy farms that popped up across the desert, many farmers switched to alfalfa, a crop that needs even more water. It was clear that the miracle couldn't last; the aquifers soon collapsed and the government decided to outsource its food production to Africa and other parts of the world instead. Some 60% of the country's fossil water under the desert was squandered in the process. Gone and lost forever.
Much of this section on water mining, and the data in it, is derived from Fred Pearce's excellent book on the global water crisis. “When the rivers run dry”, Eden Project Books, 2007.
In Sudan, the Gulf States financed a further increase of irrigation infrastructure along the Nile in the 1960-70s in an effort to turn Sudan into the 'breadbasket of the Arab world'. This was unsuccessful and half of Sudan's irrigation infrastructure currently lies abandoned or underused. Both Sudan and Egypt produce most of their food from irrigated agriculture, but both also face serious problems with soil degradation, salinisaton, water logging and pollution induced by the irrigation schemes. As a result of all these interventions, the Nile barely delivers water to the Mediterranean any longer – instead now, salty seawater backs into the Nile delta, undermining agricultural production.
Table 1: The Nile Basin: Irrigation, irrigation potential & leased land - figures in numbers of hectares
|Country||Irrigation potential||Already irrigated||Leased out since 2006||surplus/deficit||Comments|
|Ethiopia||1,312,500||84,640||3,600,000||-2,372,140||The irrigation potential refers here to the 'economic potential' of the Nile Basin in Ethiopia, which does not take into account the availability of water. According to FAO the whole of Ethiopia has an irrigation potential of 2.7 million hectares taking into account water and land resources. The vast majority of the leased out land in the Nile basin.|
|Sudan & South Sudan||2,784,000||1,863,000||4,900,000||-3,979,000||Virtually all of the water is from the Nile. FAO-Aquastat states that in 2000, the total area equipped for irrigation was 1,863,000 hectares, but only about 800,000 hectares, or 43 percent of the total area, are actually irrigated owing to deterioration of the irrigation and drainage infrastructures.|
|Egypt||4,420,000||3,422,178||140,000||857,822||Virtually all of the water is from the Nile. FAO Aquastat states that plans are underway for new irrigation of 150,000 hectares in Sinai, as part of the al-Salam project, and 228,000 hectares in Upper Egypt at Toshky, amongst others. This would bring the country quickly to its irrigation potential – or over it.|
|Total for all four countries||8,516,500||5,369,818||8,640,000||-5,493,318||FAO, commenting on its own figures, states that the irrigation potential figures should be considered with caution and are probably much lower. It puts the overall irrigation potential of all countries in the Nile basin at around 8 million hectares, but 'even these 8 million hectares are still a very optimistic estimate and should be considered as a maximum value'|
|Source: Irrigation figures from FAO Aquastat and FAO: 'Irrigation potential in Africa: A basin approach' Land lease figures from GRAIN dataset on land grabbing 2012 and other sources.
Malibya, a subsidiary of Libya's sovereign wealth fund, acquired a 50-year renewable lease covering 100,000 ha in the Office du Niger. The Malian government provided the land for free with unlimited access to water for a small user fee. By 2009, Malibya had completed a 40-km irrigation canal, which begins at the same source that feeds all the rice fields of small farmers in the Office du Niger. These small irrigation channels, which used to water the market gardens of the women farmers' groups in the area, were closed when the Malibya canal was constructed.[i] Although the project was suspended when the Kadhafi regime collapsed in 2011, representatives of Libya's new government were in Mali in January 2012, to reassure Malian authorities that they would maintain "good" investments in the country.[ii]
|5,400 litres. [i]
Trade in agricultural commodities thus amounts to trade in virtual water. Neo-liberal economists argue that the international trade in agricultural commodities is the most efficient way to save water, as crops can be grown where water requirements are less, ie in countries where you don't need irrigation because it rains a lot. But the reality of the virtual water trade is starkly different. Europe, not a notoriously dry continent, is one of the main importers of virtual water in the world, often from places that regularly experience droughts and shortages. For the United Kingdom it is estimated that two-thirds of all the water that its population needs comes embedded in imported food, clothes and industrial goods. The result is that when people buy flowers from Kenya, beef from Botswana, or fruit and vegetables from parts of Asia and Latin America, they may be exacerbating droughts and undermining countries' efforts to grow food for themselves.[ii]
[ii] John Vidal, the Guardian, 17 April 2010. “UK relies on 'virtual' water from drought-prone countries, says report”
Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the Chairman of Nestle, says that these deals are more about water than land: "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 the deal." Nestle is a leading marketer of bottled water under brand names including Pure Life, Perrier, S.Pellegrino and a dozen others. It has been charged with illegal and destructive groundwater extraction, and of making billions of dollars in profits on cheap water while dumping environmental and social costs onto communities. 
In the not-so-distant future, water will become "the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals,” says Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter. No surprise, then, that so many corporations are rushing to sign land deals that give them wide-ranging control over African water. Especially when African governments are essentially giving it away. Corporations understand what's at stake. There are “buckets of money” to be made on water, if only it can be controlled and turned it into a commodity. (See Virtual water and Grabbing carbon credits?)
The secrecy that shrouds land deals makes it hard to know exactly what's being handed over to foreign companies. But from those contracts that have been leaked or made public, it is apparent that the contracts tend not to contain any specific mention of water rights at all, leaving the companies free to build dams and irrigation canals at their discretion, sometimes with a vague reference to 'respecting water laws and regulations'. This is the case in the agreements signed between the Ethiopian government and both Karuturi and Saudi Star in Gambela, for example. In some contracts, a minor user fee is agreed upon for the water, but without any limitation on the amount of water that can be withdrawn. Only in rare cases are even minimal restrictions imposed during the dry season, when access to water is so critical for local communities. But even in instances where governments may have the political will and capacity to negotiate conditions to protect local communities and the environment, this is made increasingly difficult due to existing international trade and investment treaties that give foreign investors strong rights in this respect.
|business at such a low
rent, whereas the State could gain more, without any special investment
and transform the area into a REDD project?”[i]
The burgeoning carbon trade market, and it's related REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degredation) mechanism, could very well make land more attractive as an asset for foreign investors. The UN considers tree plantations as forests, and therefore oil palm and other plantations can benefit from carbon credits. REDD and the carbon trade market have already come under severe criticism for doing the opposite of what they are meant to do: exacerbating instead of diminishing the climate crisis. They also provide yet another incentive for agribusiness and investment funds to get hold of land and water resources across the world.
[i] Samuel Nguiffo, Brandon Schwartz, CED 'Herakle 13th Labour? A Study of SGSOC’s Land Concession in South-west Cameroun. www.cedcameroun.org/index.php
 Oakland Institute, December 2011 'Landgrabs leave Africa thirsty'
 Estimates of land deal figures for Ethiopia vary wildly. Here we use 3.6 million hectares, as indicated in the 2011 Oakland Institute's country report on the issue: http://tinyurl.com/br8jz7s In 2012, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced that the country had made available 4 million hectares to agricultural investors: http://farmlandgrab.org/post/view/20468
 Fred Pearce, 'When the rivers run dry' Eden Project, 2006. p. 146.
 FAO 1997 'Irrigation potential in Africa: A basin approach'
 Quoted in SIWI, 2012, 'Land acquisitions: How will they impact transboundary waters?'
 Wetlands International. L. Zwarts 2010. “Will the Inner Niger Delta shrivel up due to climate change and water use upstream?
 Foreign Policy, 15 April 2009. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/04/15/the_next_big_thing_h20  In 2001, residents of the Serra da Mantiqueira region of Brazil, investigating changes in the taste of their water and the complete dry-out of one of their springs discovered that Nestlé/Perrier was pumping huge amounts of water from a 150 meter deep well in a local Circuito das Aguas, or “water circuits” park whose groundwater has a high mineral content and medicinal properties. The water was being demineralized and transformed into table water for Nestlé's “Pure Life” brand. Water usually needs hundreds of years inside the earth to be slowly enriched by minerals. Overpumping decreases its mineral content for years to come. Demineralisation is illegal in Brazil, and after the Movimento Cidadania pelas Águas, or Citizens for Water Movement mobilised, a federal investigation was opened resulting in charges against Nestlé/Perrier. Nestlé lost the legal action, but continued pumping water while it fought the charges through appeals. http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=240#water
 Quoted Financial Times/alphaville “Willem Buiter thinks water will be bigger than oil” 21 July 2011. http://ftalphaville.ft.com/blog/2011/07/21/629881/willem-buiter-thinks-water-will-be-bigger-than-oil/
 For access to the contracts that we have been able to get hold of, see: http://farmlandgrab.org/home/post_special?filter=contracts  The issue of land and water rights in the context of international trade and investment treaties is further discussed in: Carin Smaller and Howard Mann: 'A thirst for distant lands', IISD, 2009.
 Human Rights Watch, 2012: 'Waiting here for Death'. http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/ethiopia0112web_short.pdf
 Fred Pearce, 'When the Rivers Run Dry' Eden Project, 2006. See also Water Mining in this article.
Land deal summary
|Mozambique, Limpopo river|
|30,000 hectares close to Massingir dam leased to Procana for sugarcane production. Project was suspended and government is now looking for new investors. One study puts the total new irrigation plans due to the various land acquisitions at 73,000 hectares||One study concluded that the Limpopo River does not carry sufficient
water for all planned irrigation and that only about 44,000 hectares of
new irrigation can be developed, which is 60% of the envisaged
developments. Any additional water use would certainly impact downstream users and thus create tensions. 
|Tanzania, Wami River|
|Ecoenergy has been granted a concession of 20,000 hectares to grow sugarcane. The company claims that the size of the project has now been reduced to 8000 hectares.||The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the project revealed
that the amount of water EcoEnergy requested to withdraw from Wami River
for irrigation during the dry season was excessive and would reduce the
flow of the river. The EIA also predicts an increase in local conflicts related to both water and land.
|Kenya, Yala Swamp (Lake Victoria)|
|Dominion Farms (US) established its first farm on a 7,000 hectare piece of land in the Yala Swamp area in Kenya, which it obtained on a 25-year lease.||The local communities living in the area complain of being displaced
without compensation, of losing access to water and pasture for their
livestock, of losing access to potable water and of pollution from the
regular aerial spraying of fertilisers and agrochemicals. They continue to struggle to get their lands back and to get Dominion to leave.
|Ethiopia/Kenya, Omo River & Turkana lake|
|The Ethiopian government is building an enourmous dam in the Omo river to produce electricity and to irrigate 350,000 hectares for commercial agriculture, including 245,000 hectares for a huge state-run sugar-cane plantation. Known as 'Gibe III', the dam has sparked a tremendous international opposition due to the environmental damage it will cause, and the impact it will have on indigenous people depending on the river.||Descending from the central Ethiopian plateau, the Omo River meanders across Ethiopia's southwest before spilling into Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake. The Omo River and Lake Turkana is a lifeline for over half a million indigenous farmers, herders and fishermen,, and the Gibe III Dam now threaten their livelihood. Construction of the dam began in 2006. Studies suggest that irrigating 150,000 hectares. would lower Lake Turkana by eight meters by 2024. If 300,000 hectares. are irrigated, the lake level will decline by 17 meters, threatening the very future of the lake which has an average depth of only 30 meters.|
|Ethiopia, Nile River|
|Multiple foreign investors, including the following in the Gambela region:
||Ethiopia has leased out some 3.6 million hectares. The vast majority of these are in the Nile basin, including the Gambela region. The FAO puts the irrigation potential of the Nile basin in Ethiopia at 1.3 million hectares. So if all the land offered for lease is brought into production and under irrigation, the plantations will draw more water than the Nile can handle. The first ones to lose out are the local communities. The government has started a 'villagization programme' in which it is is forcibly relocating approximately 70,000 indigenous people from the western Gambella region to new villages that lack adequate food, farmland, healthcare, and educational facilities.|
|Sudan & South Sudan, Nile River|
|Multiple investors, including Citadel Capital (Egypt) Pinosso Group (Brazil), ZTE (China), Hassad Food (Qatar), Foras (Saudi Arabia), Pharos (UAE), and others. Total land deals documented by GRAIN amount to 3.5 million hectares in Sudan, and 1.4 million hectares in South Sudan.||Together Sudan & South Sudan have some 1.8 million hectares under irrigation, virtually all of it drawing from the Nile. FAO calculates that, together, Sudan and South Sudan haven an irrigation potential of 2.8 million hectares. But GRAIN identified almost 4.9 million hectares that have been leased out to foreign investors in these two countries since 2006. Of course, considering the recent tense political situation, it remains to be seen whether and when this land is put under production. But even if a part of it is, there is clearly not enough water in the Nile to irrigate it all.|
|Egypt, Nile River|
|GRAIN documented the acquisition of some 140,000 hectares of farmland by Saudi and UAE agribusiness in Egypt for food and fodder for export by Al Rajhi and Jenat (Saudi Arabia), Al Dahra (UAE) and others||Egypt is fully dependent on the water of Nile for its food production. Currently the country has some 3.4 million ha under irrigation, and FAO calculates that it has an irrigation potential fo 4.4 million ha. It still has to import much of its food. The country is continuously expanding its agricultural area, including the Toshka project to transform 234,000 hectares of Sahara desert into agricultural land in the South, and the Al Salam Canal to irrigate 170,000 hectares in the Sinai, Despite concerns over the needs for water to feed its own population, the Egyptian government has signed off to lease at least 140,000 hectares to agribusiness from the Gulf States to produce food and feed for export. It is difficult to see how this is compatible with feeding its own population.|
|Kenya, Tana River Delta|
|The government has given tenure rights and ownership of 40,000 hectares of Tana Delta land to TARDA (Tana River Development Authority) who entered into a joint venture with Mumias Sugar company to establish sugarcane plantations. A second sugar company, Mat International, is in the process of acquiring over 30,000 hectares of land in Tana Delta and another 90,000 hectares in adjacent districts. The company has not carried out any environmental or social impact assessments. Bedford Biofuels Inc, from Canada, is seeking for a 45 year lease agreement on 65,000 hectares of land in Tana River District to transform it into biofuel farms, mainly growing Jatropha.||The Tana is Kenya's largest river. Its delta covers an area of
130,000 hectares and is amongst Africa’s most valuable wetlands. It is
home to two dominant tribes, the Orma pastoralists and the Pokomo
agriculturalists. According to one study more than 25,000 people living
in 30 villages stand to be evicted from their ancestral land that has
now been given to TARDA.
The impacts of these intensive agricultural projects are numerous and they raise both environmental and social issues. Even the Environmental Impact Assessment of Mumias questions whether the proposed abstraction of irrigation water from the Tana River can be maintained during dry months and drought periods. Reduced flow could lead to damage of downstream ecosystems, reduced availability for livestock and wildlife and increased conflict, both inter-tribal and between humans and wildlife.
|Mali, Inner Niger Delta|
|GRAIN has documented the acquisition of some 470,000 hectares of farmland in Mali by different corporations from all over the world. They include Foras (S. Arabia); Malibya (Libya); Lonrho (UK), MCC (US), Farmlands of Guinea (UK), CLETC (China) and several others. Virtually of this is in the 'Office du Niger' located in the Inner Niger Delta, a huge inland delta which constitutes Mali's main agricultural area.||The FAO puts Mali's potential to irrigate from the Niger at about
half a million hectares. But due to increased water scarcity,
independent experts conclude that Mali has the water capacity to
irrigate only 250,000 hectares. The government has already signed away
rights to 470,000 hectares in the delta – all of it to be irrigated. And
it announced that 1 to 2 million hectares more are available. One study
by Wetlands International calculates that the combined effects of
climate change and all the planned water infrastructure projects will
result in the loss of more than 70% of the floodplains of the delta.
|Senegal, Senegal River basin|
|GRAIN has documented the acquisition of some 375,000 hectares of farmland by investors from China (Datong Trading), Nigeria (Dangete Industries), S. Arabia (Foras), France (SCL) and India.||A lot of the land deals are in the basin of the Senegal river which is the main irrigated rice producing area of Senegal. Around 120,000 hectares in the area are suitable for irrigated rice production and about half of these are currently being farmed under irrigation. The FAO calculates that the river has a total irrigation potential of 240,000 hectares. Unesco reports that the flood plain ecosystems of the Senegal river are in bad shape due to dam building: “In less than ten years, the degradation of these environments and the consequences on the health of the local population have been dramatic.” Taking more water from the river to produce export crops will make a bad situation worse.|
|The agro-industrial group Herakles American Farms leased more than 73,000 hectares of farmland in South West Cameroon to produce oil palm.||According to local NGOs, the contract gives the company "the right to use, free, unlimited quantities of water in its land grant”. It concludes that from a contractual standpoint the company clearly has priority over local communities when accessing water, and fears that environmental and socio economic impact will be severe. In 2011, the local youth took to the streets to block the bulldozers in protest. The Mayor of Toko, which is in the area is affected by the land deal, drew attention to its impact on the country's major watershed: “This particular area is one of the most important watersheds of Cameroon. We don't need SG SOC or Herackles farm in our area.”|
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 Sources: tanariverdelta.org: http://www.tanariverdelta.org/tana/g1/projects.html; Leah Tember, UAB, 2009: 'Let them eat sugar: life and livelihood in Kenya’s Tana Delta.' http://tinyurl.com/cdlcspn; Abdirizak Arale Nunow, 2011, 'The dynamics of land deals in the tana delta, kenya' http://tinyurl.com/d42rfqf