Landgrab deals: actually water grabs

We’ve been posting regularly here about the various ‘landgrab’ third party food supply deals that have been such a feature of the last year or two (see the map that Mark posted a couple of weeks ago) – particularly in Madagascar, where a particularly dubious example of such a deal is perceived to have played a part in fomenting the recent coup d’etat there.

Over at, though, Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe has a different and interesting take on the issue:

The purchases weren’t about land, but water. For with the land comes the right to withdraw the water linked to it, in most countries essentially a freebie that increasingly could be the most valuable part of the deal. Estimated on the basis of one crop per year, the land purchased represents 55 to 65 cubic kilometers of embedded freshwater, an amount equal to roughly 1½ times the water held by the Hoover Dam. And, because this water has no price, the investors can take it over virtually free. It’s not quite a scenario from a James Bond movie, but the rush to lock up scarce water resources in agricultural belts is nonetheless disturbing. It suggests another food crisis might not be too far away.

In a sense, the great water grab is only prudent: Some 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawn for human use goes into agriculture, but underground aquifers are falling—in some regions by several meters per year—and rivers are running dry due to overuse. The worst problems are in some of the world’s most important agricultural areas: eastern Spain, the U.S. Great Plains, the Middle East and North Africa, and parts of Pakistan, northwest India, and northeast China. As the former head of the International Water Management Institute warned, “We could be facing annual losses equivalent to the entire grain crops of India and the U.S. combined” if current trends hold.