Why you should care
Because humanity needs water to survive, and it’s being bottled up by private owners right out from under our noses.
Imagine being told you couldn’t fish in a local stream or swim in your favorite watering hole because an international firm had purchased nearby land. That’s happening to people all over the world, and in some cases it’s a matter of life and death, giving a far more sinister edge to the term “water fight.”
The Anuak people in Ethiopia last year were shocked to learn they could no longer use the Alwero River, their fish source, thanks to a land deal by a Saudi development firm. The ethnic group, which has lived near the river for generations, was forced to yield to foreign interests.
180 million Olympic pools’ worth of water
The amount of water grabbed by foreign governments in land purchases every year
We’ve all heard of land grabbing, the large-scale land purchases by foreign firms and governments in the developing world. Less obvious, however, are the hidden water grabs involved in the transactions. These involve governments and private interests diverting water away from native communities — who depend on it for their livelihoods — to serve their own interests, and 60 percent of it is taken through land grabs.
Who’s grabbing the water? According to environmental science researchers in the U.S. and Italy, the top water grabbing countries are China, Egypt, India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.
And why? Motivations differ. Saudi Arabia is plagued by chronic water scarcity; Israel and the United Arab Emirates lack arable land. Meanwhile, for the U.K. and China, it might be cheaper to buy land abroad than to transport their own water from its source to domestic agricultural land. What the water elite all have in common is being significantly richer than the countries they make deals with.
Who suffers most? Sixty percent of water is grabbed from Africa — where a third of the population already lives in water-scarce environs. The highest rates are suffered in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Sudan, as well as in the Philippines and Indonesia.
Despite several reports by the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization showing the negative effects of water grabbing, the global rush for water is growing. It’s no longer just international conglomerates grabbing water; many of the latest purchases are being carried out by private equity funds, hedge funds and even pension funds looking to capitalize on this declining natural resource.
As a result, the water derivatives market is booming, and a top economist for Citibank, Willem Buiter, has advised folks to start investing in water because it’s set to become “a hotter commodity than oil or gold .”
Water is set to become “a hotter commodity than oil or gold.”
In contrast to gold, however, humanity needs freshwater to survive. As climate change advances, demographic pressure grows and the biofuel production increases, the competition to secure access to water will turn even more fierce.
It seems Mark Twain was right when he said: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.”