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African governments signing away water rights for decades

By Mike Shanahan

A paper published today by 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.

The water rights often feature in the growing number of large land deals that governments are signing with investors (see First detailed study of large land acquisitions in Africa warns of impacts on poor rural people) as many of these areas require irrigation to be viable.

Such deals have already raised concerns for being rushed, secretive and one-sided. Many fail to deliver real benefits and can even create new social and environmental problems (see Report shows how secret land deals can fail to benefit African nations – and how to make them better).

Now, researchers at IIED warn 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. Some investors in Mali and Sudan have been given unrestricted access to as much water as they need.

“Companies that acquire land for irrigated farming will want secure water rights, but long-term contractual commitments can jeopardise water access for local farmers,” says co-author Lorenzo Cotula. “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.”

The Gibe III dam in Ethiopia will enable irrigation on 150,000 of land the Ethiopian government has allocated to investors, but 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.

“The ‘global water crisis’ is a crisis of water management, not of water quantity,” says the paper’s lead author Jamie Skinner, a principal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development. “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.”

Originally published by IIED

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