Upper Atbara and Setit dam complex on river Atbara in Sudan. Its construction displaced up to 30,000 people. 

In Sudan, land and water grabs are rampant in Khartoum, River Nile and Northern states where the Nile River passes or has tributaries, according to Stefano Turrini, a scholar involved in the study of land grabs and agricultural development in Sudanese drylands.

Stefano, a PhD candidate in Geography at Padova University in Italy, said land grabbing gained momentum in Sudan in the early 2000s, when the government of the now-ousted President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir offered “land and water at favorable conditions to the Gulf countries.”

Development of the Setit Dam Complex

A Flourish data visualisation

The Land Matrix database has tracked 762,208 hectares of large-scale land acquisitions in Sudan since 1972, with most deals concluded after year 2000. Most of this land was allocated to 28 transnational deals, with companies from mainly Middle Eastern states – including Qatar, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Syria – acquiring huge swaths of land to produce food crops, alfalfa, and biofuels.

Land Deals in Sudan

A Flourish data visualisation

Investors from countries including Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia are also vying for another 3.4 million hectares of land, which are under negotiation. Alfalfa, the most commonly grown crop on the acquired land in Sudan, is exported to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to be used as animal feed.

The rush to acquire land in arid Sudan for irrigation-reliant projects reveals investors’ target for Nile water and not just land. “A great many investments combine the two,” said Tom Lavers, a lecturer in politics and development at the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute.

Dispossession of land is not only associated with land but with other resources that are available in the land or near it, said Dr. Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum, a senior Lecturer in water governance at IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands. “In soil, there is always water available and most of these lands are taken away for agriculture purposes,” she said. 

“The biggest agricultural acquisition in Sudan is perhaps that of Moawia Elberier, a multinational conglomerate of 30 companies, which gained an area of up to 480,000 feddans”Stefano Turrini

Before being ousted, President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir’s government was considering establishing more alfalfa projects.  The increase in land grabbing in Sudan has pushed over the edge local communities that were already facing land scarcity due to desertification even before their lands were converted to large-scale agriculture. Many communities also lost wells and vast tracts of corridors for cattle. Because of this, “tribal conflicts” for control of “land and water resources” are flaring, according to Stefeno. 

As a deliberate government intervention to scale down negative effects of land grabs on local communities, since 2013 the National Investment Authority has been directing private investors to allocate 25 percent of their land acquisitions to the local community. However, some investors reportedly ask for 25 percent more land than they need so that they can acquire the same amount of land after allocating 25 percent to the communities.

The Sudanese parliament has also put a ban on agricultural investment ventures, with members of parliament citing depletion of the country’s underground water resources.