‘Lease the land, but use the water’: The case of gambella, Ethiopia

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Gambella is one of the regional states in Ethiopia where huge tracts of land have been leased out to domestic and international investors since the global food, fuel and financial crisis of 2007/2008. The Gambella region is also one of the most marginalized regions in Ethiopia. It has been alienated from the central politics and socio-economic activities of the state. In the past, the Gambella region was mainly known in relation to ethnic conflicts between the Nuer and Anywaa ethnic groups and the highlanders and in relation to the civil wars in Sudan and later in South Sudan. At the moment, large-scale agricultural investment commonly labelled as ‘land grabbing’, depending on which perspective one takes, has brought the Gambella region to the centre of national and international attention. Several reports, newspaper articles and policy papers (Dessalegn, 2011; Oakland Institute, 2011; The Guardian, 2011, 2015; Time Magazine, 2011; GRAIN, 2012; Mittal, 2013; Nalepa, 2013) often refer to land and water grabbing activities in Gambella Regional State (GRS). Still, an overview of different ‘land investment deal contracts’ in Ethiopia reveals that water is either vaguely mentioned or is implicitly given out to leasers together with the land. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, ‘increased biofuel demand in 2000-7 is estimated to have contributed to 30 per cent of weighted average increase of cereal prices’ (von Braun et al., 2008, cited in Cotula et al., 2009: 53). Agribusiness, investment funds and government agencies in general have been investing in mainly developing countries, including Ethiopia (Cotula et al., 2009; Cotula, 2011). These investments have been reported to have both positive and negative impacts. The problem associated with commercial farming in Gambella, as Oakland Institute (2011, 2013) GRAIN (2008, 2012), and Human Rights Watch (2012) argue, is that it creates ‘property insecurity’ resulting in scarcity of water and grazing land. The positive side, as the World Bank argues, is that it can create opportunities for recipient countries and local people, by bringing capital, know-how, jobs, and market access and infrastructure development. From this perspective, large-scale land investment may reduce rural poverty and deliver social and environmental benefits (World Bank, 2010; Deininger, 2011, cited in Mehta et al., 2012). Land and water are intrinsically linked. There is no commercial farm without reliable water resources. This is why land grab is also a water grab. The most often quoted water grab definition was the one given by the Global Water Grab: ‘Water grabbing refers to a situation where powerful actors are able to take control of or reallocate to their own benefit, water resources at the expense of previous (un)registered local users or the ecosystems on which those users’ livelihoods are based’ (Franco et al., 2014: 3). Capturing water is not only controlling the water, but also a reflection of ‘the power to decide who, when and how to use the water’ (Franco et al., 2013: 153). It involves the unequal power relations between the user, provider and the local peoples as to how, when and how much of the water to use (Franco et al., 2013: 153). Throughout human history, competition over water resources has always existed. The contemporary wave of water grabs is occurring because of the land grabs, which, in turn, may result in water resource appropriation and enclosures and the conversion of water from ‘public/common goods’ to private/ commoditized goods. This has a ‘potential drastic impact on the current and future uses and benefits of water, rights as well as changes in tenure relations’ (Franco et al., 2013: 3). Numerous research (Smaller and Mann, 2009; Woodhouse and Ganho, 2011; Skinner and Cotula, 2011, cited in Mehta et al., 2012: 3) shows that ‘land grabbing may be motivated by the desire to capture water resources’. Despite the large scholarly debate and media attention focusing on ‘land grabbing’ or ‘land investment’, 1 there is limited research on ‘water grabbing’ or water use in these deals. The existing studies on ‘water grabbing/use’ mainly focus on the use of upstream water for land investment and its impact at the intra-state level (see Smaller and Mann, 2009; Jägerskog et al., 2012; Woodhouse and Ganho, 2011, cited in Jägerskog et al., 2012). In Gambella, there is even more limited empirical research done on the subject. There is almost no study on the impact of land acquisition on transboundary water resources and its implication on the ‘hydropolitics’ of the Nile River Basin (see Chapter 2 in this volume). This study aims to explore the hydropolitics and local practices by analysing land and water acquisition in the GRS and along the Baro-Akobo River, which is a tributary of the Nile River. This study is based on key informant interviews with policy-makers and government officials at both federal and regional government levels, including the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Electricity in Addis Ababa, and bureaus working with agriculture, environment, investment, trade and industry in the Gambella region. The study also draws on data gathered from investors and, more importantly, interviews and focus group discussions with local community members. The author undertook two field visits to the Gambella region, including visits to the Nuer and Anywaa zones in 2012 and 2013, and also made personal observation to a number of commercial farms owned by both domestic and international investors.

Titel på gästpublikationLand and Hydropolitics in the Nile River Basin
Undertitel på gästpublikationChallenges and new investments
Antal sidor23
ISBN (elektroniskt)9781317414353
ISBN (tryckt)9781138921757
StatusPublished - 2016

Ämnesklassifikation (UKÄ)

  • Ekonomi och näringsliv
  • Oceanografi, hydrologi, vattenresurser


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