Water Grabbing? The Coming Conflict Over The (Re)appropriation of Finite Water Resources

Via Water Alternatives, an interesting call for papers on water grabbing:

In many river basins in the world, water resources have become the object of increasing competition between food production and other sectors. The rush to acquire new lands as sources of alternative energy, food crops, and environmental services have led to the so called “land rush” or “land grabbing” that have made headlines and which contributed to skyrocketing global food prices in 2008. By drawing on notions of ‘marginal’, ‘waste’ and ‘unproductive’ lands, powerful transnational and national actors have moved into large-scale agriculture to take advantage of potential windfall gains in sub-sectors such as biofuels and major commodities (sugarcane, rice, wheat and other cash crops). New demands for land have also arisen due to climate change mitigation measures in the form of carbon forestry (REDD and tree planting for carbon sequestration). Land acquisition has ranged from buying or leasing land that may or may not be cultivated and/or occupied, and sometimes merely by organising smallholder production and controlling output markets. The process is part of a global re-alignment of political economic relations – the rise of new political and economic power centres through diverse trajectories of neoliberalisation.

Despite headline attention to ‘land grabbing’ the implications for existing surface and groundwater water resources have so far not been adequately examined. There are indications that in many cases ‘land grabbing’ is motivated by the desire to capture water resources. This is because in many cases, the land coveted or acquired by investors is not ‘marginal’ but of prime quality and associated with irrigation facilities or the potential for sourcing freshwater from river systems or aquifers (e.g., in arid areas land is plentiful and agricultural expansion will not create conflict until water is used). This raises the crucial question of whether this water is truly available or will be reallocated from existing users. Hydrologic complexity, in particular surface water/groundwater interactions and inter-annual variability, often obscures how reallocation takes place and what are the associated third party impacts on the environment or other social groups.

Acquisition of land and water resources, therefore, may or may not be related to one another, and each of them may amount to resource “grabbing” or not, depending on whether local people have been deprived from these same resources. (Re)appropriation may be effectuated through various means, ranging from violent expulsion to different types of compensations, to legal purchase, “legality” referring to what dominant discourses and the state consider as acceptable and lawful. There is obviously a fine line, and often a fuzzy overlap, between what some would consider as “resource grabbing” and others as lawful reallocation, be it organised or orchestrated by the state or through market mechanisms.

This special issue will focus explicitly on instances of “water grabbing”, where powerful actors are able to reallocate to their own benefits water resources already used by local communities or feeding aquatic ecosystems on which their livelihoods are based, as well as processes of contestation and resistance. It will in particular focus on how material, discursive, administrative and political power is mobilised to enable such water reallocation and on the impacts of the latter on local livelihoods, rights, gender, class and other social relations. The call is focused on two generic situations:

Landlords, agribusiness firms or other corporations investing in large-scale irrigated agriculture and consequently displacing small-users of water

Powerful (trans)national actors tapping, extracting and polluting surface or groundwater resources in rural and peri urban areas in a way that is detrimental to other existing farmers or to aquatic ecosystems that are the basis of local livelihoods and wellbeing.

In order to avoid conflating and addressing all water allocation issues and conflicts, the call is limited to these situations. In particular it excludes situations of sectoral competition (e.g. between cities and agriculture) as well as water grabbing by touristic resorts.

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