3. Contested Water Territories: Water Grabbing

Learning Objectives

  • Elaborate the concepts and issues of hydrosocial territories, water grabbing and virtual water.
  • Analyze water conflicts with a multi-dimensional and inter-disciplinary lens, taking into account multiple issues, scales, actors and discourses.

Key Concepts

Hydrosocial territories, socionature, territorial pluralism, virtual water, water grabbing

1. An introduction to the concept of “hydrosocial territories”

This module will focus on a new aspect of conflicts and struggles over water, and put a particular emphasis on ‘water territories’. What is meant with water – or better: hydrosocial – territories will become clearer with this module, specifically with the first reading that introduces this concept.

Talking about hydrosocial territories is not merely another academic concept. Rather, we believe that it provides an enriching viewpoint on how to see water conflicts and associated changes in spatial as well as economic, political and socioeconomic terms.

Besides the first conceptual part, the case content of this module is centered around land and water grabs in Africa. This focus allows to get to know an important (global!) dynamic with high water conflict potential and, at the same time, provides a good case for applying the conceptual approach. You will learn how land grabs, which are intrinsically also an appropriation of local water resources, reconfigure local territories with often unequal consequences for different land and water users. You will also learn how these land and water deals involve multinational corporations and international commodity chains (trading ‘virtual water’), thereby linking the global scale (for example Western consumers) to the local.

2. Case study videos

The short news video (produced by VOA News in 2009) portrays the heated discussions about a land deal between the Kenyan and Qatar government. It is one of many examples of disputed large-scale land deals in African countries and complements the GRAIN report “Squeezing Africa Dry”.

The video, produced by Al Jazeera English in 2012, demonstrates another example of disputes about large-scale land deals, which are often strongly connected to water use rights and thus water conflicts. The Sudanese government has been selling or leasing vast areas of fertile land to foreign investors, which has sparked protests from people who depend on these lands for their livelihoods.

Key Readings

Key Readings

  • Here you can find a report titled "Squeezing Africa Dry: behind every land grab is a water grab", published by GRAIN, a non-profit organization working to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.
  • Want to read more about the issue of water grabbing? Check for example this easy-to-read report from the Transnational Institute ("The Global Water Grab - A Primer").
  • Click here to access the paper of Boelens et al. (2016) "Hydrosocial territories: a political ecology perspective". It will provide you with an introduction to the concept and related conceptual thinking.

Discussion Questions

Discussion Questions

  • What is your own understanding and definition of key aspects of‚ hydrosocial territories‘? How do you see these key aspects & insights come back in the case studies?
  • How is the current state of land and water use in the case study regions (referring to videos and GRAIN report; the current state = before large-scale agribusiness investments) imagined differently by different actors?
  • How are these diverging imaginaries contested when it comes to discussions around large-scale agribusiness investments on local territories?
  • Can one speak of ‚territorial pluralism‘ when talking about these contestations (as conceptualized by Boelens et al., 2016)? If yes, in what way?
  • Can you demonstrate with the information you have about land and water grabbing in Africa how "Territorial struggles entwine battles over natural resources with struggles over meaning, norms, knowledge, decision-making authority, and discourses" (Boelens et al., 2016:8)?
  • What effects do land and water grabs in sub-Saharan Africa have for local land and water users?
  • And as an addition to the previous question: how do local territories become connected to global territories? (think about "virtual water" and implications of its trade)

Having read the conceptual paper and GRAIN’s case study, and having watched two short illustrative videos, it is now time to combine and understand these materials in one analysis. The assignment is therefore to analyze the processes and effects of land and water acquisition taking place in several African countries with the conceptual framework and lens of 'hydrosocial territories'.

Your analysis can be in the form of bullet points only, or — if you prefer — as a written analysis paper (probably this would take up around 3 - 4 pages). The analysis will take you around 1 - 2 hours, depending on the effort you put into it; and will be indispensable to thoroughly understand the conceptual notions and their application to specific cases.

Further Readings

Further Readings
In case you want to read more about how the concept is applied to specific cases, check the Special Issue in Water International of which the paper forms part (Volume 41, Issue 1, 2016) .

Other related International Waters Lessons and Submodules

Next submodule: The Right to Be Different: Indigenous Struggles in Ecuador

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