By Claire Provost, November 24, 2011, The Guardian
The banks of the Niger river, in southern Mali, have been flooded by a steady stream of foreigners. Coveted by foreign investors eager to snap up large tracts of fertile farmland, the river basin has been at the centre of a race to get hold of African land at rock-bottom prices. Meanwhile, last week, hundreds of smallholder farmers and civil society activists flocked to the same river basin for the first international conference to tackle the global rush for land.
West Africa’s largest river, the Niger is thought to sustain over 100 million people as it snakes 4,180km through Guinea, Mali and Niger before emptying into Nigeria’s colossal Niger Delta. In Mali, the Office du Niger is home to the vast majority of the country’s largescale land deals, seen by campaigners as emblematic of the “land grabs” taking place in developing countries. Recent estimates suggest that foreign investment in Mali’s limited arable land jumped by 60% between 2009 and 2010. But the potential knock-on effects of these land deals on local communities’ access to water has rarely made it centre-stage.
Ongoing research from the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development seeks to redress this blindspot, honing in on how such land deals might affect water access for fishing, farming and pastoralist communities. In a policy paper out on Thursday, the IIED’s Jamie Skinner and Lorenzo Cotula warn that an alarming number of African governments seem to be signing away water rights for decades, with major implications for local communities.
Investors in farmland are, understandably, after land with high growing potential – either land with lots of rainfall or land that can be irrigated. What Skinner and Cotula note is a worrying trend where governments are being rushed into signing away water rights during negotiations where they were initially only considering leasing land.
In many cases, say Skinner and Cotula, governments seem willing to simply provide water free of charge. In Mali and Sudan, for example, some investors have been given unrestricted access to as much water as they need. In other cases, where investors must pay to use water, they are often charged according to how much land is irrigated rather than how much water is used.
The role water plays in fuelling the global rush for land has received significant attention. It is no coincidence, observers say, that the most aggressive foreign investors are also those facing water shortages at home. This year, risk analysis firm Maplecroft said the results from its water stress index showed why India, South Korea and China, along with the oil rich Gulf states, are racing to buy land in developing countries and grow crops abroad. The chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, has gone so far as to say the global rush for farmland is actually a “great water grab”. He writes in Foreign Policy: “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.”