African governments signing away water rights for decades

A paper published today, November 24, 2011 by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), warns that African governments are signing away water rights for decades, with insufficient regard for how this will affect millions of local users, including fishing, farming and pastoralist communities.

Specifically, IIED’s researchers caution that governments risk signing away water rights in ways that harm the future prospects of their citizens, especially fishermen and pastoralists, who rely on the same water as the investors.

According to the paper, the water rights often feature in the growing number of large land deals that governments are signing with investors, as many of these areas require irrigation to be viable.

Such deals have already raised concerns for being rushed, secretive and one-sided, while many fail to deliver real benefits and can even create new social and environmental problems, a statement announcing the IIED paper says.

Giving specifics, the paper reveals that some investors in Mali and Sudan have been given unrestricted access to as much water as they need.

It states further that although the Gibe III dam in Ethiopia will enable irrigation on 150,000 of land the Ethiopian government has allocated to investors, studies suggest this project would lower the level of Kenya’s Lake Turkana – on which half a million Kenyans depend, by eight metres by 2024.

According to Lorenzo Cotul, co-author of the paper, “Companies that acquire land for irrigated farming will want secure water rights, but long-term contractual commitments can jeopardise water access for local farmers.”

He says “This affects not only the people who have customarily used the land that is being leased, but also distant downstream users who can be hundreds of kilometres away and even across an international border.”

To Jamie Skinner, the paper’s lead author and a principal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development however, “The ‘global water crisis’ is a crisis of water management, not of water quantity,” and that “Good water management in the face of climate change is only possible if it is clear who the water belongs to, who holds rights to its use and when allocations to all users  are made in a transparent way.”

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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