It’s not just land: water rights under threat

Mining activities on the Lom river in Bétaré Oya (East Region of Cameroon) are linked to numerous social and environmental harms. Photo credits: Eric Etoga.

Titre Auteur via: Source CC BY 4.0


Amaelle Seigneret

The acquisition of land by commercial actors often hides the less visible transfer of access and use rights to other resources such as water. Several cases in Cameroon demonstrate that land grabs can also entail water grabs, and highlight a legal vacuum around the protection of rural citizens’ water tenure rights.


At a recent LandCam workshop, women living near to agribusiness plantations denounced the various forms of abuse they face. Their testimonies made clear the sometimes-less-visible link between violations of land rights and water rights. Women from Bidou II village (Ocean Division), which is surrounded by three industrial concessions (see the map below), complained that companies regularly dump waste into watercourses. Some studies (see paragraph 42 [in French]) suggest that this would have affected soil quality, among other problems. And indeed, this corroborates with the observations of villagers, who reported that harvests over the past few years have been poor, with many rotted crops and lower yields. These commercial operations consequently seem to have strong impacts on food production and security.

Figure 1: Map showing Bidou II (blue flag) and surroundings (by CED, 2019). The village is surrounded by several agribusiness and forest concessions that encroach onto residents’ living spaces.

Figure 1: Map showing Bidou II (blue flag) and surroundings (by CED, 2019). The village is surrounded by several agribusiness and forest concessions that encroach onto residents’ living spaces.

Bidou II is not alone – there is a long list of human rights and environmental harms which are recurrent across the spectrum of agribusiness, mining, oil, infrastructure and logging projects in the country. Yet water rights have received comparatively less attention. We have noted a few trends:

  • the degrading quality of water due to the release of various chemicals into water streams by companies, leading to pollution-induced diseases spreading throughout communities and affecting the health of ecosystems and harvests, as is the case for example in Bidou II, as well as in the Dja Division linked to a rubber company’s activities, and in Figuil, North Region, linked to mining activities;

  • the revoking of access to water resources community members depend on for domestic use and other livelihoods activities such as farming and fishing. For example, due to their incorporation inside an oil palm plantation in the Ocean Division, or the clogging of water bodies along a road construction [in French] project in the Dja and Lobo Division. The construction of a dam in the East Region has also completely restructured the landscape, making fishing increasingly difficult;

  • a decrease in water availability because of water-intensive industries that capture resources for irrigation and other uses, leading to conflicts between local communities and companies, as is the case with a banana producing company in the Littoral region, and;

  • a loss of cultural identity for communities whose cultural and/or spiritual rites involve specific sites and water. This is especially the case for Indigenous Peoples.

Weak rights and a weak institutional framework

A distinction must be made between the right to water, an international principle that refers to the human right to safe drinking water for domestic use (itself not explicitly recognised by the State, despite its ratification to several international instruments that protect this right), and rights over water resources, which refer to tenure regimes. Cameroon’s water code [in French] only vaguely mentions the State’s responsibility in “facilitating access for all” and in managing it (2.1).

Inland over and underground water bodies are held by the state and citizens have use rights over public water resources. Historically, water has been accessed and used following customary law, similarly to land. The present-day water governance framework presents a number of weaknesses that hamper the sustainability of said customary practices.

The Ministry of Water and Energy (MINEE) has the stronger mandate in national water governance, but responsibilities are shared across numerous ministries and institutions –  albeit with little coordination as is suggested by several studies (and here [in French]), hindering the coherent governance of water. We note that there exist few links with the land administration (MINDCAF), thus creating two very distinct regimes for water and land despite the two being closely linked. 

Other major shortfalls include:

  • the non-explicit recognition of local users as holders of unconditional priority rights;

  • an incomplete decentralisation process with unclear roles and weak mandates for the participation of institutions across lower administrative levels for water management;

  • the inefficient implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) practices due to poor institutional support and framework;

  • the absence of a coordinated approach to addressing water needs according to gender (and other dynamics of social differentiation);

  • the low availability of data on water resources and population needs, and;

  • weak legal enforcement, as the following demonstrates.

Water rights, regulatory power and state-investor contracts

In addition to the institutional weaknesses described above, abuses of power by commercial actors and the state for private benefits have caused the disruption of local rights. Some state-investor contracts in Cameroon indeed demonstrate that the government has explicitly conferred “first use” rights over water resources to companies in land transactions, thus overriding citizens’ rights and endangering their capacity to meet basic needs.

Two contracts for an oil palm company (p 16, section 3.3.v) and a rubber and oil palm company (p 6, section 7.4 [in French]) read the same clause:

“the investor and any investor party shall have the right […] exclusively within the production zone, to take and use water, land, rocks, stones, sand, clay and gravel that have no significant commercial value […] based on how the investor sees fit or useful to its activities, without any other authorisation and free of charge.

The contracts contain additional provisions that secure access for investors in the long term and reduce the power of the state to regulate the use of water, even in the event of a law reform.

Worse yet, the government voluntarily surrendered its regulatory power when it privatised a formerly state-owned oil palm company by approving this clause in the contract:

“[…] the State gives [company name redacted] a grace period of three years to realise necessary investments with respect to applicable norms concerning for example wastewater and revokes its own right during this period to sanction the company for not abiding by the enforceable regulation.” (6.7)

The impacts of these legal agreements are felt by rural communities. Water is still a major source of complaints from local communities living near the above-mentioned privatised palm oil company. And concerning the international rubber and oil palm company mentioned just before, the parent company’s 2019 annual corporate report provides figures for the concentration of various chemicals in effluents that far exceed legal limits.

Land and water should go hand in hand

Cameroonian civil society has long alerted government authorities and the wider public about rights violations associated with large-scale land-based investments and gaps in national regulations and governance. Among these limitations, we find the disconnect between the legislative frameworks overseeing land and water resources which offers little protection to rural citizens and could increase vulnerability.

The ongoing land reform is an opportunity to coordinate the land and water tenure regimes and give stronger protection to rural communities by:

  • recognising access to safe, clean water as a basic human right, not only for domestic use but also for food and agriculture;

  • recognising customary tenure rights on land, water and all other resources found within rural villages’ territories, and giving them a priority status to protect access and use rights in the long-term, even in the event of a transfer of land rights to an investor or other party;

  • revising land acquisition procedures to account for all legitimate rights on land and resources, and requiring the systematic survey of all water needs of local populations, including Indigenous Peoples, to ensure that company activities do not disrupt them in any way;

  • renegotiating problematic clauses in existing state-investor contracts such as the ones discussed above, to restore rural livelihoods and water rights, and;

  • increasing coordination across the land and water administrations and regimes for coherent policies and governance that genuinely protect local populations’ rights and interests.


Amaelle Seigneret is a Land Rights consultant at IIED and works on the LandCam project.