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When the Nile runs dry

Affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, South Korea, China and India are acquiring or leasing huge tracts of fertile plains across the African continent to produce wheat, rice and corn for consumption back home, in response to rising global food prices and reduced exportation of commodities.

Some of these land acquisitions are enormous. South Korea, which imports 70 percent of its grain, has acquired 1.7 million acres in Sudan to grow wheat — an area twice the size of Rhode Island. In Ethiopia, a Saudi firm has leased 25,000 acres to grow rice, with the option of expanding this to 750,000 acres. And India has leased several hundred thousand acres there to grow corn, rice and other crops.

Egypt, a nation of bread eaters, consumes 18 million tons of wheat annually, more than half of which comes from abroad. Egypt is now the world’s leading wheat importer, and subsidized bread — for which the government doles out approximately $2 billion per year — is seen as an entitlement by the 60 percent or so of Egyptian families who depend on it.

Land grabs to the south are threatening Egypt’s ability to put bread on the table because all of Egypt’s grain is either imported or produced with water from the Nile River, which flows north through Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Egypt. Growing water demand, driven by population growth and foreign land (and water) acquisitions, are straining the Nile’s natural limits.

An article from the Earth Policy Institute suggests that ways to avoid dangerous conflicts over water will include initiatives such as government addressing population management through family planning services; adoption of more water-efficient irrigation technologies and shift to less water-intensive crops; and a collaborative ban of land grabs by foreign governments and agribusiness firms.

International help in negotiating such a ban, similar to the World Bank’s role in facilitating the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, would likely be necessary to make it a reality.

ACT’s Climate Change Adaptation & Water Governance policy research project has been studying North American policy for water rights and uses. Results will be published in mid-September 2011.

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