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The fluid nature of water grabbing: the on-going contestation of water distribution between peasants and agribusinesses in Nduruma, Tanzania

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This article contributes to the contemporary debate on land and water grabbing through a detailed, qualitative case study of horticultural agribusinesses which have settled in Tanzania, disrupting patterns of land and water use. In this paper we analyse how capitalist settler farms and their upstream and downstream peasant neighbours along the Nduruma river, Tanzania, expand and defend their water use. The paper is based on 3 months of qualitative field work in Tanzania. We use the echelons of rights analysis framework combined with the concept of institutional bricolage to show how this contestation takes place over the full spectrum of actual abstractions, governance and discourses. We emphasise the role different (inter)national development narratives play in shaping day-to-day contestations over water shares and rule-making. Ultimately, we emphasise that water grabbing is not a one-time event, but rather an on-going struggle over different water resources. In addition, we show how a perceived beneficial development of agribusinesses switching to groundwater allows them to avoid peasant-controlled institutions, avoiding further negotiation between the different actors and improving their image among neighbouring communities. This development illustrates how complex and obscured processes of water re-allocation can be without becoming illegal per se.

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  1. While the current horticultural companies were started in the 1990s, the land was already “grabbed” in colonial times and turned into coffee estates. However, we put the start of the current water grab when the inactive coffee estates were turned into water consuming horticultural agribusinesses.

  2. On 1-10-2012, 100,000 Tanzanian Shillings (TSH) equalled 62 USD.

  3. While no research has been done, either by us or others, on the practices of tax avoidance or evasion by horticultural companies in Tanzania, these issues have recently been raised in neighbouring Kenya (Tax Justice Network 2013; Hortibiz 2014; Business Daily 2013). From the interviews in this research, it has become clear that at least 5 out of 10 companies sell their products to a mother company at production prices, rather than market prices. Although this is not illegal, it does result in lower profits and lower tax payments, and raises the suspicion of tax avoidance.

  4. While it is hard to believe that the agribusiness managers truly believe that there are no interactions between ground and surface water, this is what they conveyed in interviews.

  5. Source: interview with the downstream committee leader, October 2012.

  6. Source: interview with a former downstream committee leader, October 2012.

  7. Source: interview with the downstream committee leader, October 2012.



Arusha Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Authority


Echelons of rights analysis


Foreign direct investment


Milieu Programma Sierteelt


Non-governmental organisation


Pangani Basin Water Office


Tanzania Investment Centre


Tanzanian Shillings


Water User Association


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Correspondence to Chris de Bont.

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de Bont, C., Veldwisch, G.J., Komakech, H.C. et al. The fluid nature of water grabbing: the on-going contestation of water distribution between peasants and agribusinesses in Nduruma, Tanzania. Agric Hum Values 33, 641–654 (2016).

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