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Water grab in Africa

Photo credit: CGIAR-WLE

Irrigation on an urban farm in GhanaPhoto Credit: Nana Kofi Acquah/ IWMI

The great African water grab?

By James Clarke

Foreign direct investment in African agriculture could bring great benefits, but there are risks too.

“Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.” Mark Twain’s famous remark may be over a century old, but the allure of a patch of earth to call your own still remains potent.

Nowhere is this more true than in sub-Saharan Africa where, for many, land ownership is still seen as the key to a secure income. Against a bitter history of colonial appropriation in many countries, the lure of land still stirs deep emotions. Many African governments have tried to address historic grievances, but the results have been mixed. African agriculture remains in the doldrums, chronically underproductive by global standards.

So the news that foreign money is now pouring into African agriculture should be welcome. Investors are leasing land all over the continent with the intention of creating modern farms with high crop yields. It could be a win-win: bringing in new technology and infrastructure, creating jobs and boosting food supplies. Instead it is more commonly characterized as a “land grab” – a cynical attempt to further exploit African resources for the benefit of others.

Curiously the debate over foreign direct investment in African agriculture has focused almost exclusively on access to land.  Water has been largely ignored – until now. New research, commissioned by the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW) and presented this week by International Water Management Institute’s Tim Williams at a session during World Water Week in Stockholm has attempted to tease out what the implications of the trend might be for the continent’s water and those who depend upon it.

Currently only 5% of sub-Saharan agriculture benefits from irrigation. New investments potentially offer opportunities to dramatically increase this. Nonetheless, questions remain about the motives of investors and the actual contributions of foreign direct investment (FDI) in agricultural land to the national development of host countries.

What are their actual impacts on national food security, local livelihoods, on water quantity and quality, and on essential ecosystem services?  Unscrupulous large-scale land acquisitions and inadequate consideration of the actual and potential uses of water for the legitimate pursuit of customary livelihoods and lifestyles have the potential to lead to significant inequity, inefficiency and environmental problems.

Read the full article: WLE-CGIAR

Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.