Splash and grab: Gauging the global scramble for water
As French troops battled with jihadists in Mali at the start of the year, some people had reason to be thankful for the chaos. Two million fishermen, farmers and herders live on the inner delta of the River Niger, a huge wetland on the fringe of the Sahara. They hoped the fighting would end foreign investors' plans for irrigation projects that would suck water out of the river and destroy their livelihoods.Even before fighting broke out, rumours of impending insurrection had encouraged the food giant Associated British Foods to abandon a massive sugar cane project. Since then, "land-grabbers" from the US, Libya, China and elsewhere have departed. The Mali government's hope of using the river to irrigate up to a million hectares of desert looks doomed. The wetland - and the people who prosper from it - are saved. For now.
But the same is not true elsewhere. Wetlands and the people who rely on them are under pressure across Africa. I have interviewed Kenyans angry at a US property tycoon draining their swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria and fencing off their wet pastures for a rice farm. I have also heard the concerns of tribal people in a remote corner of western Ethiopia, where Indian and Saudi agri-businesses are taking their forests and capturing the headwaters of the Nile.
Usually this is called land-grabbing, but it is as much about water. In a world of drying rivers and plummeting water tables - and where a quarter of farm production is limited by water shortages - water is valuable stuff.
"Water will become eventually the single most important commodity asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals," argues chief economist at Citigroup Willem Buiter.
Yet governments rarely recognise this. In a study of land-grab contracts, Lorenzo Cotula of the International Institute for Environment and Development found that land-grabbers typically demand water rights, and usually get them. But governments rarely put a price on the water or limit how much can be taken, even in water-stressed countries. If your dam or borehole is big enough, you can have every last drop - regardless of the impact on locals.
We urgently need to know more about the scale of this capture, not least because some of the land-grabbers' favoured crops are among the thirstiest, such as sugar and rice. But if information on land grabs is poor, then that on water grabs is far worse.
Most of what we know about land grabs comes from press reports collated by GRAIN, an NGO based in Barcelona, Spain, that campaigns for peasant farmers. This leads to some over-reporting. For instance, many Saudi schemes in other Islamic nations have never got beyond grand ministerial declarations.
Under-reporting is a problem, too. I have flown over hundreds of kilometres of tribal lands in northern Paraguay acquired by Brazilian ranchers but absent from land-grabbing databases. Similarly missing are grabs by domestic companies in partnership with foreign ones, such as the sugar plantations that have obliterated Cambodian family rice farms to supply the Tate & Lyle sugar factory in the UK.
For what it's worth, Oxfam puts the total amount of land promised to foreign companies at more than 200 million hectares. A network of researchers known as the Land Matrix, coordinated by Ward Anseeuw of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, estimates that perhaps a third of these deals have been completed, with most of those now only in the early stages of cultivation.
The first attempt to turn this land data into estimates of water grabs was made in January by Maria Cristina Rulli of the Polytechnic University of Milan in Italy and colleagues. The headline stat was that up to 450 cubic kilometres of water are "appropriated" globally by land-grabbers each year. At least two-thirds of this is rain falling onto the grabbed land, but the rest is extracted from rivers or aquifers for irrigation - around 5 per cent of total global extractions for irrigation. That's a lot.
But there are two problems with this analysis. The first concerns the land grabs that were included. Rather than using the Land Matrix data, the researchers used miscellaneous grabs listed by GRAIN and other sources. Their inclusion criteria are unclear, but this skews the data, turning the UK from a middle-ranking land-grabber to the biggest of them all, for instance.
The second, bigger, problem is their conversion of land grabs into water grabs. Land contracts merely allow access to water, albeit often unlimited access. So the authors assessed how much water would be needed to grow the intended crop on all of the grabbed land.
The trouble with this is that few if any land-grabbers have come close to achieving that so far. The figure may thus represent a theoretical maximum, but right now it could be orders of magnitude too high.
The findings would be best ignored, except they are the only peer-reviewed global water grab assessment in existence and are already being quoted.
The authors are right to highlight that there are a huge number of water grabs, many of them in hungry and water-stressed countries. But the fact is we are no closer to quantifying how much water is being taken. We must do better.
Fred Pearce is a consultant on environmental issues for New Scientist. His latest book is "The Landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the Earth".