In recent years, much media, academic and policy attention has focused on the rapid growth of large-scale land deals around the world. The rush to acquire land resources for alternative energy, food security and environmental services has been labeled 'land grabbing'. This has made global headlines and is argued to contribute to skyrocketing global food prices. There is a large literature, both popular and academic, that describes this. For example, "Land grabbers: Africa’s hidden revolution" in the Guardian in May 2012 described how an oil billionaire has brought large areas of former natural forest under agriculture in Western Ethiopia, severely damaging the environment and destroying the local population’s livelihood basis. The food produced - in excess of a million tons of rice per year - is shipped to Saudi Arabia. The quantity of virtual water leaving the Nile Basin is massive. Compared to the huge Gezira scheme established in nearby Sudan in 1914 by a colonial power, is there any difference? Was that a case of "water grabbing" as well? How do we define "water grabbing"?
Until today, the effects that 'land grabbing' has on existing water resources have largely been ignored. Growing evidence, however, suggests that in many cases land grabbing may be motivated by the desire to capture water resources. Still, to associate land grabbing only to large-scale agriculture for food, feed and fuel crops is probably not correct. Recent studies are beginning to move beyond this important but still rather limited view (see reference below). Land development as linked to water resources should be seen in relation to a wide range of activities that span the food, water, energy, industry and even water pollution domains.
Altogether, the term "water grabbing" is increasingly being used today (Googling the term provides some 28 million hits). The connotation is typically negative; it is about exploitation, environmental degradation, and dirty deals. Cases that are often referred to include hydropower development in Laos, (promoted by neighboring Thailand), water transfers from the Palestinian West Bank into Israel, state-supported water development schemes in India and Kenya, and the well-known agricultural schemes along the Nile River in the Sudan, producing food for far-way populations in China, India and the Middle East. Would similar cases also include the export of tea from Sri Lanka, wheat from the US and rice from Thailand, as well as wine from South Africa and water transfer from Malaysia to Singapore?
When the Gezira scheme was established a hundred years ago the driver was not water scarcity, it was colonial imperialism, making money and establishing power and influence. Today, however, we see other reasons for virtual water flows. Some are indeed linked to water scarcity, while others are linked to e.g. trade and export earnings, a lack of land for agriculture, or a quest for tropical fruits. Few would argue that wheat production in Saudi Arabia based on desalinated seawater or fossil groundwater is sound natural resources management; it is better for such a country to import food (if they have the financial resources) from countries or region more endowed with water and thus contribute to an "optimization" of the world's water system.
To trade water - like water flowing into Singapore or the export of "wine virtual water" from South Africa - is a fundamental process for national well-being and development. It is also a way to handle global water scarcity. When it is done according to sound policies and a respect for the environment and marginal groups, it is fine and should be supported like any other form of international collaboration. However, when the benefits are not shared equally, the environment mismanaged, poor people marginalized, and influential individuals or even whole nations given the opportunity to exploit faraway water resources at little cost, it is about something else - water grabbing.
A thematic issue on “water grabbing” in Water Alternatives (June 2012) contains 15 academic articles. They problematize the issue and provide examples of “water grabbing” from around the world. It is available for free at http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=45&Itemid=1. In addition, the website http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2012/08/06/thailands-mekong-water-grab/ provides a particular focus on Southeast Asia and hydropower development in the region.
Finally, click here for the World Water Week in Stockholm reference.