Water grabbing: a slippery business

The issue of water grabs is a particularly slippery one. Unlike land, water flows and moves from one place to another; its availability goes up and down, affected by the seasons, human use, or climate change; it can be visibly on the surface and invisibly underground. It can be a source of food, or disease and pollution. Rights, access and uses are complex and varied. Who has the right to the water in a river: the people who live beside it in a given place, the farmers who depend on it for irrigation, or those upstream or downstream?

Water’s elusive nature makes it a prime target. The boundaries between legality and illegality are often fuzzy, and questions of jurisdiction over water can be unclear. Grabbers often take advantage of this legal complexity. In Ghana, for example, the separation of land and water rights created the space for water grabbing: pre-existing customary water rights were abolished and instead ownership, management and control of water were placed under authority of the state.

Elsewhere, water is described as scarce and ‘under-used’ – terms that could be contested more often than they are – to justify grabs. In the Tana Delta, the Kenyan government targeted the Tana river basin for development, designating the floodplain area as ‘unused’ and the adjacent terraces as ’empty dryland’ with irrigation potential. A recent special issue of Water Alternatives on ‘water grabs’ explores these and other examples through a series of case studies from around the world.

Much of the global water grab is helped along by powerful narratives of underutilised land and water resources that ‘require’ investment to ‘unlock’ their potential. Oddly enough, the opposite of this narrative can also be used: that of an abundance of water and land, ready to be woken up by commercial agriculture. These same narratives can be seen throughout debates on global land deals, in which water is an important – but often neglected – part of the story.

The Second International Conference on Global Land Grabbing will feature a panel on ‘water grabbing’. You can follow updates from the conference on Twitter and on the Future Agricultures website.

Photo: water-hand-fall by kalieye on Flickr.