Water grabbing occurring at ‘alarming rates’

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Land is grabbed to meet food as well as biofuel demand Copyright: Flickr/Oxfam East Africa

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[BUENOS AIRES] Deals in which rich foreign corporations and countries buy or lease agricultural land abroad result in nearly half a trillion cubic metres of fresh water also being grabbed each year — often enough to grow sufficient food to abate undernourishment in the 'grabbed countries', a paper reveals.

The majority of land grabbing takes place in Africa and Asia, and the amount of grabbed water per capita often exceeds the water requirements needed to provide a balanced diet to residents in the grabbed nations, says the paper, published last week (2 January) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.


  • Nearly half a trillion cubic metres of fresh water is grabbed each year in foreign land deals
  • The volume is similar to that needed to grow food to cut malnourishment in 'grabbed countries'
  • Land and water grabbing is expected to rise as demand for resources increases

It describes land grabbing as a "new form of colonialism that has intensified in the last four years, initially in response to the 2007 to 2008 increase in food prices".

But it adds that "the interests of foreign land purchasers can be reconciled with those of developing countries if land grabbing can be used as a means to create new jobs and bring in investment and technological advances from which the local economy could benefit".

The amount of grabbed land is often a significant portion of a country's total area, for example nearly 20 per cent in Uruguay, around 17 per cent in the Philippines and almost seven per cent in Sierra Leone, the paper says.

Many deals are done after only limited consultation of local people, without adequate compensation for previous land users and without seeking opportunities to create jobs or enhance environmental sustainability, it says.

In addition, grabbed countries lose control of water resources needed for agriculture, with this process taking place at an "alarming rate", according to the paper.

"Land grabbing is associated with a virtual grabbing of a substantial amount of freshwater resources, including both water supplied by rainfall and irrigation," says Maria Cristina Rulli, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Polytechnic of Milan in Italy.

Rulli explains that land is grabbed mainly to meet food demands, but that drivers such as biofuel demand and financial speculation also play a part.

The top water-grabbing nations by volume are China, Egypt, India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States, and some of the most grabbed countries are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and the Philippines.

"Most land deals target the best and most promising land areas, where there is water and other infrastructure available, in close proximity to markets and transport routes," says Kenneth Hermele, an expert on human ecology at Lund University in Sweden.

Camilla Toulmin, director of research organisation the International Institute for Environment and Development, says that "powerful forces" are driving land grabbing, and that these are "only likely to accelerate as demand for resources continues to expand, and pressures on land, water and agricultural systems respond to climate uncertainties".

But she cautions that there are still limitations to data, and that land grabbing is complex, for example many land acquisitions are done by local elites and many have not been followed by investments and developments on the ground.



Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States doi:10.1073/pnas.1213163110 (2013)