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Food Security in the Age of “Water Grabbing”

Water Projects, Lesotho (World Bank Photo Collection)

Water grabbing or the large-scale, rapid privatization of water is happening worldwide, affecting global food security because local farmers are losing access to both land and water resources.

Gaining control of water is often a motive behind land grabs, and according to a 2013 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, up to 57 million hectares of land and 454 billion cubic meters of water are grabbed each year. Africa accounts for 47 percent of global grabbed land while Asia accounts for 33 percent. Both of these continents are home to some of the world’s hungriest people.

Trade and water expert Shiney Varghese from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) writes in her blog that some large companies view water as "an important investment opportunity" and quotes Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter, who says, “Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals." Varghese mentions that some major financial, chemical, and technology companies, such as General ElectricGoldman SachsDow ChemicalTalisman Energy, and Coca-Cola have already acquired many land and water resources and have formed the Aqueduct Alliance to help make wise water investments. According to Varghese, the Aqueduct Alliance is a water mapping project that "could help companies identify and reduce their water footprint, or could lead to company investments that follow water and grab it."

When companies grab land and water resources, local farmers have to find ways to still grow enough food to feed themselves and earn a living. Small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have recently increased their use of affordable, sustainable irrigation techniques to overcome challenges created by water scarcity, but water grabbing may damage this progress. In her IATP blog, Varghese links to a National Geographic article that warns that “the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered” if African governments and foreign investors fail to support local farmers’ initiatives in favor of large-scale water deals that mainly benefit corporations.

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