Foreign farms increase the risk of conflicts in Africa

September 28, 2016, Lund University
Satellite imagery of Africa. Credit: Public Domain

For the first time, researchers point to areas in Africa where foreign agricultural companies' choice of crops and management of fresh water are partly responsible for the increased water shortages and greater competition for water. This in turn increases the risk of outright conflicts between all those who need water – plants, animals and humans.

During the 21st century, foreign companies have leased large tracts of land in Africa – more so than in other parts of the world – in order to produce cheap food, cheap timber and cheap raw material for biofuels. An interdisciplinary study from Lund University in Sweden shows that about three per cent of the land leased in Africa by foreign companies has been registered as currently in production, for the purpose of growing crops. For various reasons, the companies have either pulled out or not started producing on other leased land.

The study also shows that the crops that decide to grow often require more water than the traditionally grown crops. Furthermore, it shows that the same crop can have very different needs for water, depending on the climate where it is grown and which irrigation systems the companies use.

The researchers in Lund, together with a colleague in France, have developed a model that shows how much water is needed for different production systems, in different types of climates, in different parts of the continent. The model takes into account both the size of the land and the type of irrigation system.

This model has enabled researchers to distinguish between areas where rainwater accounts for the largest share of , and areas where large foreign agricultural companies satisfy more than half of their water needs by using sources, such as groundwater, rivers and ponds. This has allowed the researchers to highlight the areas around the continent where increased competition for water escalates the risk of water-related conflicts between different sectors and ecosystems.

"These hotspots have not been identified in this way before. Previous studies have often focused on the size of the area and not on how much fresh water is used to grow the demanding crops that are interested in", says physical geographer Emma Li Johansson, who was in charge of the study.

The leases are often written for periods of 33 to 99 years. The contracts rarely include any rules or limits concerning the use of water.

"Our research can perhaps lead to foreign investors showing greater consideration for how much water is necessary, in relation to how much water is actually available. Hopefully, the results can serve as a basis for documents that regulate the consumption of large-scale farming companies", says Emma Li Johansson.

The results are published in an article in the scientific journal PNAS.

Explore further: Fuel or food? Study sees increasing competition for land, water resources

More information: Emma Li Johansson et al. Green and blue water demand from large-scale land acquisitions in Africa, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1524741113

Related Stories

Clean thermal energy for clean fresh water

February 18, 2015

RMIT's Dr Abhijit Date was awarded the $AUD132,000 grant for his research into a sustainable and economical fresh water management system that could be used in coastal areas of India and salt-affected farming land in Australia.

Helping crops survive prolonged drought, save water

March 30, 2016

Purdue researchers are developing a technology that could enable specific plants and crops to survive extreme periods of drought, while significantly decreasing agricultural water consumption.

Minimising water use, maintaining productivity

January 7, 2014

As the climate warms up, more and more farmers in Switzerland need to irrigate their crops. This is problematic because many rivers carry less water. If the increase in water use is limited, agricultural production will not ...

Biofuels may lead to a 'drink or drive' issue

June 15, 2009

Rice University scientists warned that the United States must be careful that the new emphasis on developing biofuels as an alternative to imported oil takes into account potential damage to the nation's water resources.

Recommended for you

Afromontane forests and climate change

January 17, 2019

In the world of paleoecology, little has been known about the historical record of ecosystems in the West African highlands, especially with regard to glacial cycles amidst a shifting climate and their effects on species ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Shootist
1 / 5 (1) Sep 28, 2016
The very existence of Africa increases the risk of conflict in Africa.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.