Breu, Thomas; Bader, Christoph; Messerli, Peter; Heinimann, Andreas; Rist, Stephan; Eckert, Sandra (2016). Large-scale land acquisition and its effects on the water balance in investor and host countries. PLoS ONE, 11(3), e0150901. Public Library of Science 10.1371/journal.pone.0150901
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This study examines the validity of the assumption that international large-scale land acquisition (LSLA) is motivated by the desire to secure control over water resources, which is commonly referred to as ‘water grabbing’. This assumption was repeatedly expressed in recent years, ascribing the said motivation to the Gulf States in particular. However, it must be considered of hypothetical nature, as the few global studies conducted so far focused primarily on the effects of LSLA on host countries or on trade in virtual water. In this study, we analyse the effects of 475 intended or concluded land deals recorded in the Land Matrix database on the water balance in both host and investor countries. We also examine how these effects relate to water stress and how they contribute to global trade in virtual water. The analysis shows that implementation of the LSLAs in our sample would result in global water savings based on virtual water trade. At the level of individual LSLA host countries, however, water use intensity would increase, particularly in 15 sub-Saharan states. From an investor country perspective, the analysis reveals that countries often suspected of using LSLA to relieve pressure on their domestic water resources—such as China, India, and all Gulf States except Saudi Arabia—invest in agricultural activities abroad that are less water-intensive compared to their average domestic crop production. Conversely, large investor countries such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Japan are disproportionately externalizing crop water consumption through their international land investments. Statistical analyses also show that host countries with abundant water resources are not per se favoured targets of LSLA. Indeed, further analysis reveals that land investments originating in water-stressed countries have only a weak tendency to target areas with a smaller water risk.