Are land grabs also taking precious water from poor communities?

For too long, water has been a missing dimension in debates on land grabs. The very term ‘land grabs’ or ‘land deals’ ignores the inevitable impact that the acquisition of land by a foreign government, investor or corporation will have on the natural resources that are associated with that land. When access to land is handed over however, it’s the access to water resources that come with it, which is of the greatest value.

As the chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, has written, “Purchases weren’t about land, but water. With the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal.”(1) All too often, water is embedded in the deal but not paid for.

Agricultural land needs water

Land grabbing refers to the large-scale acquisition of comparatively inexpensive agricultural land, which takes the form of an outright purchase or a long-term lease and gives the buyer extensive control over that piece of land. Of course agriculture demands water, and lots of it.

Designation of exclusive rights to use land provides prior rights to ‘green’ water (rainfall and plant transpiration) on that land. Moreover, in many contexts it also implies a demand on ‘blue’ water resources (rivers, lakes and aquifers), since agriculture typically accounts for 70-80% of such water ‘abstracted’ (pumped, stored or diverted) in less industrialised economies.(2)

Devastating consequences

This appropriation of water for irrigation has devastating consequences for local communities. Loss of direct access to land, water, forestry and fertile soil impacts on food security and livelihoods. It is women that are most likely to carry the burden of land and water loss, as they are the primary provider of water and food in their household.

It’s not just about the land that is acquired and the people who live and depend on it for their food and livelihoods though. With possession and control of the land comes the ability to divert, over-exploit and contaminate local water resources. The actions of other stakeholders using the same water basin or aquifer have implications for the quantity and quality of water available for local communities. In some cases, people have been displaced when water has been over-exploited or polluted on neighbouring land.

Drop by drop

For example, Progressio’s ‘Drop by drop’ report on the production of fresh, year-round asparagus for mass export in the Ica Valley in Peru and the resultant ‘greening’ of the desert to meet demand found that the expansion of the industry had become unsustainable given the demands for water in that region.

Huge increases in water demand to support the expanding asparagus industry were linked to negative economic impacts on small and medium-scale farmers and contributed to water scarcity and inequity for some of the poorest communities in Peru. This in turn was fuelling social conflict and enhanced vulnerability to climate change in the Ica Valley. Consequently farmers who existed long before the growing of asparagus began had been forced to go without water because of drying wells and increasing salinity, or pushed into debt and forced to sell land and wells to big agribusinesses.

In the words of one small-scale farmer in Ica, “Agro-exporters will never lose – first they’ll finish all the groundwater and then they’ll come for the surface water and the government makes it easy for them. Our fate is to disappear.”


One of the challenges underpinning the use and exploitation of water resources is the complexity of measuring water resources and quantifying how much water is associated with a piece of land, especially when it comes to blue water resources.

Secondly, defining water rights is a total gray area – especially in countries where governance is weak and existing rights to land, let alone water, are weak in practice and in law. Unlike land, water is not titled. Instead there can be, in theory, user rights to water, but when these exist, they are often tenuous.

What’s the solution?

So what’s the solution? Progressio advocates that citizens must be key stakeholders in the management of the natural resources that are beneath their feet; and that therefore, local management of water is critical to ensuring that communities have equal and sustainable access water resources.

There are already a raft of guidelines to govern land deals, including the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests (though these are non-binding) and the Responsible Agricultural Investment Principles, which were developed by the World Bank and have received lots of criticism from NGOs for being a set of inadequate regulations that seek to make land deals acceptable. Where Social and Environmental Impact Assessments (SEIAs) are carried out, or communities are consulted, these are reportedly often ignored or considered mere window-dressing.

Inclusive decision-making

That’s why Progressio is endorsing the IF campaign’s call ahead of the G8 for pre-deal transparency and post-deal monitoring in land deals in order to counteract the power and information imbalance that is a regular feature of land deals. It is crucial that there are mandatory processes in places to ensure that citizens are key participants in decision-making about the use of water, land and forestry on which they depend for their food and to ensure that their voices and priorities are listened to and acted on.

Progressio wants to see communities able to access information about land deals and able to hold their own governments to account for decisions that negatively impact on their lives and livelihoods.

Recognising the value of water

It is critical to recognise in the land grabs narrative that water is both a target and a driver of land deals. Every time a land deal is discussed, access to water is at stake and with it the ability of poor and marginalised people to grow food, feed their families and sustain their livelihoods. So let’s start calling it what it is: the great water grab.

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Lis Martin is Progressio's Environment Policy and Advocacy Officer.

(1) Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, The Next Big Thing: H2O, Foreign Policy (15 April 2009)
(2) P Woodhouse and A S Ganho (2001)‘Is water the hidden agenda of agricultural land acquisition in sub-Saharan Africa?’ Land Deal Politics Initiative

Photo: A young girl from Kenilworth Junior Farmer Field School in Zimbabwe collecting water to irrigate crops. The farm school is part of a project supported by Progressio and partner organisation Bekezela (photo © Macpherson Photograpy/Progressio)