December 11, 2017

The loss of land and water to industry and urbanisation

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Published as Chapter 14 of The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams: Volume 1. Overview. Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale Manor Camelford, Cornwall PL32 9TT, UK, 1984. By Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard.


If setting up plantations is one means of obtaining the foreign exchange deemed necessary for economic development, providing cheap electricity in order to attract foreign investment in local energy-intensive industries (such as aluminium smelting) is another.

As we have seen, dams provide extremely cheap electricity – so long, of course, as one does not translate into economic terms (in so far as this is possible) the social and ecological problems they must give rise to. Small wonder, then, that ‘hydro-industrialisation’ has become something of a buzz word amongst those who would promote the building of large dams – the assumption being that by using hydropower to industrialise, Third World countries will increase local standards of living and thus (in theory) eliminate the poverty which is seen as the primary cause of hunger, malnutrition and disease.

Space does not permit us to analyse that assumption in the detail we would need to refute it – to do so would require a book in itself. We have therefore chosen to limit ourselves to a discussion of one consequence of hydro-industrialisation which is particularly relevant to our concerns: namely, the inevitable competition that arises between industry and agriculture for both land and water.

By providing electricity for industrial development, one cannot avoid reducing the amount of land available for feeding people: like it or not, agricultural land will of necessity be lost to housing estates, factories, shopping centres, office blocks, roads, motorways and the rest of the physical infrastructure of an industrial society. So too, industrial development will inevitably degrade (for reasons that we shall consider in Chapter 15) a further amount of land in the areas surrounding industrial centres. The net result is a reduction in the amount of land available for growing food – and food, not industrial goods, is the commodity most needed by the rural poor of the Third World.

It is worth considering, then, how far that process of land loss has gone in a few selected countries – beginning first with those in which it is farthest advanced and proceeding to those developing countries where its effects are now beginning to make themselves felt. This loss of land is in addition to that lost to erosion and desertification. According to UNEP’s 1977 Report on the State of the Environment, it is possible that between the years 1975 and 2000 there will be a worldwide net loss of some 400 million hectares of cultivated land to erosion.

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The loss of land to urbanisation and industrialisation in the USA

Increasing amounts of agricultural land are being lost in the United States of America to urban and industrial encroachment. The problem is particularly serious in some Eastern states where farmland is disappearing at phenomenal rates: indeed if current trends continue, then, by the year 2000, New Hampshire alone will have lost essentially all its prime farmland to development. [1]

Although that loss of farmland might not seem an immediate problem, it poses a long-term threat for future generations. As Carrying Capacity, a Washington-based environmental group, points out, “if lack of energy for transporting food necessitates a return to regionalised food production, highly urbanised areas may find themselves in serious trouble.” [2]

Just how much land is being lost to urbanisation in the US is hard to quantify. David Pimentel of Cornell University puts the loss at 2.5 million acres every year. [3] Drs. Brewer and Boxley put the annual figure at 2.9 million acres: of that total, “about 700,000 acres are cropland, 2.2 million acres are pasture, range and woodland and other lands that also have high and medium potential for conversion to cropland.” [4]

In 1981, Dr. Neil Sampson, President of the Soil Conservation Society of America, puts the ‘cropland resource pool’ of the United States at 540 million acres. Of that total, 413 million acres were used for producing crops and 127 million acres were available for conversion to cropland. At the then current rates of conversion to other uses, Sampson estimated that the ‘pool’ would be reduced to 437 million acres by the year 2000 and to 302 million acres by the year 2030. [5] Less pessimistic projections have been made, but have assumed action to preserve croplands at local, state and national levels. Unfortunately, there is no sign so far of such action being taken.

As Sampson argues,

“Shrinkage at such rates would, of course, result in a serious problem in view of the estimates by the US Department of Agriculture as to the cropland needs in the future.”

He went on to warn:

“The courses we are on today, in terms of energy use, land use, land management, and water use, are simply untenable in the future. And the future is not very far away.” [6]

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Loss of land to urbanisation in the United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the situation is very similar to that in the US – although perhaps more serious in view of the much more limited amount of agricultural land available per head of population.

As far back as the 1930s, the alarming rate at which valuable agricultural land was being lost to urbanisation was already a cause for concern. As a result, a committee (under the chairmanship of the famous geographer, Sir Dudley Stamp) was set up to study the problem and propose measures for solving it. The committee’s report, The First Land Utilisation Survey, was published in 1933. [7] The report was so alarming that the Government decided to set up a special department with the explicit brief of reversing the trends which the Stamp Committee described.

Whatever else that new department achieved, it clearly failed to stem the loss of agricultural land to urbanisation. Indeed, in 1976, the Second Land Utilisation Survey (under the chairmanship of Dr. Alice Coleman) reported that, since 1933, England and Wales had lost 1,250,000 acres of farmland – that is, 30,000 acres a year – to urbanisation. More serious still, Coleman warned that the rate of farmland loss was increasing and “may accelerate still more with the emphasis on greenfield sites for acquisition under the Community Land Act.” [8]

In fact, as Alice Coleman points out, the damage done by urban sprawl and industrialisation is much worse than official government figures suggest. During the Second World War, the amount of land under cultivation actually increased. Indeed, it was not until 1960 that the total cultivated area dropped back below its 1939 level. The net loss of land referred to in the Second Land Utilisation Survey is thus the result of the industrialisation which has taken place from 1960 onwards: in effect, the real rate at which farmland is being lost is 60,000 acres – not 30,000 acres – a year.

Even taking that factor into account, the official figures still do not give an accurate picture of the real loss of productive agricultural land in Great Britain. If, for instance, an acre of good grade land is lost whilst an acre of poor grade land is converted to agricultural use, then the loss and the gain are taken to cancel themselves out. The true amount of productive land which has been lost is therefore much higher than the official figures suggest.

Moreover, because the figures only reflect the quantitative loss of land in terms of acres, they give no indication of the quality of the land which has been lost. The Kyloe Hills in Northumberland provide a case in point, reports the Second Survey.

“Between 1933 and 1972 the area classified as ‘farmscape’ went up from 67.7 to 75.5 percent, and that classified as ‘marginal fringe’ from 11.7 to 13.1 percent, whilst that classified as ‘wildscape’ fell, during the same period, from 20.6 to 10.2 percent.”

The figures do not reveal, for instance, that the bulk of the land which has been lost since the war lies in the fertile valleys of Southern England and the Midlands, whilst the land which has been gained is largely low quality scrubland in the Uplands. Fourth or fifth grade land has thus replaced high quality land – a serious qualitative loss which is masked by the official figures.

Finally, the official figures gloss over the amount of land which has been lost to ‘fragmentation’. Anarchic patterns of urban growth have rendered unproductive much land which has not actually been paved over – largely by exposing it to trespassers and to damage by vandals. (We learn, for example, of boys from a housing estate at New Addington climbing into an adjacent field and cutting off the tails of all the cows grazing there.)

According to Alice Coleman, at least 22 percent of agricultural land in England and Wales is now affected by such fragmentation. [9] The result is not only a reduction in yields but also the abandonment of otherwise good agricultural land in and around towns and cities. Still more land is lost in such areas due to farmers ‘reclassifying’ their holdings in order to get them approved as development sites – a move which, if successful, can earn a farmer more in a single transaction than he could ever have hoped to earn in a lifetime of farming.

The extent to which urban development impinges on agricultural land is well illustrated by Alice Coleman’s own study of the pattern of land-use in some 850 square miles of the Thames Estuary. Thus she tells us that:

“for every unit of land used for providing homes and shops, six have been used for factories, sixteen for roads, fifteen have been turned into ‘tended space’ (i.e. lawns, gardens and play areas) and nine have become derelict, whilst sixty-one have been turned into wasteland.”

Such wasteful patterns of land-use are usually attributed to bureaucratic inefficiency. In reality, however, they also reflect the intense pressures applied on local councils by developers and government agencies to obtain what they regard as prime sites for their particular development projects – regardless of how unsuitable these sites might be in the context of a sensible policy for preserving as much agricultural land as possible for feeding people.

According to Alice Coleman, if government and local councils had not been subjected to such pressure, much of the building in the area she studied would have been carried out on pre-existing wasteland – and the loss of agricultural land would thus have been relatively small.

On the basis of past experience, however, one can predict that such pressures will be intense in an industrial society – whether that society is run on capitalist or communist lines. The apparently avoidable loss of land is not, therefore, in reality avoidable: indeed, it should be regarded as part of the normal cost of economic development.

Indeed, land is now being lost at such a rapid rate in Britain that, on current trends, the last acre of agricultural land in England and Wales will have been either cemented over or transformed into ‘tended space’, derelict land or wasteland by the year 2157. [10] Since – well before then – the world’s cereal producers (and, in particular, Canada and the USA) are unlikely to be in a position to export food, it is very difficult to see where the English and the Welsh will get their food from.

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Loss of land to industrialisation and urbanisation in Japan

Despite having less arable land than the United Kingdom and almost twice as many people to feed, Japan sacrificed an average of 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) a year to urbanisation and industrialisation between the years 1968 to 1974 – a rate of land loss almost twice as high as in Britain. [11] How long that shrinkage of Japan’s agricultural base can continue before her food producing capacity is reduced to zero is hard to tell – but it cannot be for many decades more.

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The failure to take land losses into account

One cannot, of course, blame all the loss of fertile land in the UK, the USA or Japan to the building of large dams per se . After all, much of the industrial and urban development which has been responsible for that loss of land has been powered by thermal and nuclear energy. The same is not true, however, for many other countries – and, in particular, for the majority of Third World countries where the electricity used to power development is largely provided by hydro-electric schemes .

In such countries, the agricultural benefits to be derived from water development projects – and in particular the increased yields due to irrigation – should be weighed against the reduction of food supplies as a result of the loss of agricultural land to the development spawned by hydro-industrialisation.

Unfortunately, such ‘land loss budgetting’ has never been carried out. If it had been, it would have undoubtedly revealed that the net gain in food production due to water development projects is often very slim indeed – and, in some cases, negative. Let us consider the case of the Aswan Dam in Egypt.

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The Aswan Dam and the loss of agricultural land in Egypt

Noting how serious the loss of agricultural land to urbanisation has been in Egypt over the last few decades, Asit Biswas writes:

“The magnitude of the problem can best be realised by considering the fact that total irrigated land has virtually remained the same in Egypt during the last two decades, in spite of the thousands of hectares of new irrigated land developed due to the building of the Aswan Dam. In other words, Egypt has continued to lose good arable land to urbanisation as fast as she has brought new land under irrigation, at tremendous investment costs.” [12]

Dr. Khalil El Mancey also notes the widespread loss of land to urbanisation. He tells us that the Aswan Dam has made it possible to convert about 293,000 hectares of previously basin-irrigated land to perennial irrigation, permitting three crops a year instead of one. In addition, 526,000 hectares of desert have been reclaimed and are now under perennial irrigation. Unfortunately, however, “about an equal amount of land has been lost to urban sprawl during the same period. [13] ” Presumably, by “equal amount of land” he refers to the 526,000 hectares only.

Mohammed Kassas comes to a similar conclusion – although his figures are different. He writes:

“Nationwide programmes to reclaim new land (river-control schemes, the irrigation of desert lands, etc.) brought a total area of 372,000 hectares under cultivation during 1955-1975 but the loss of prime croplands of the fertile Nile Valley and delta due to urban expansion was 400,000 hectares.” [14]

In fact, the loss of land to industry and urban sprawl in Egypt is very much worse than suggested by either Biswas, El Mancey or Kassas. One reason is that the official figures for land losses (like the official figures in the UK) only provide a quantitative comparison between the amount of land gained and the amount lost. No account is taken of the quality of the land involved.

Thus, the greater part of the 526,000 acres which have been reclaimed from the desert is of extremely poor quality – so much so that it cannot conceivably compensate for the high quality land which has been lost in the Nile Valley where most of the urbanisation in Egypt has taken place. Given that the overt reason for building the Aswan Dam was to relieve Egypt’s problem of chronic malnutrition, that loss of good quality land to urban and industrial sprawl is particularly ironic: indeed, without the power provided by the High Dam, it would never have occurred.

The issue of land losses has been explored in greatest detail by John Waterbury. The picture he paints is not a reassuring one. To begin with, he points out, the amount of land effectively reclaimed has been grossly exaggerated by the Government. For some years after the building of the Aswan Dam, we were told that 1.2 million feddans had been reclaimed. Later, in 1972, when reclamation efforts came to a halt, it was admitted that a gross area of only 912,000 feddans had been reclaimed of which only 770,000 feddans represented a net “cultivable surface”. [15]

Even those figures are misleading, however, since they include land reclaimed before the High Dam came into operation. In addition, 80,000 feddans in the New Valley were reclaimed using groundwater for irrigation rather than water from Lake Nasser. Moreover, only 600,000 feddans had actually been brought into production by 1972, and of that area only 345,000 feddans “had reached marginal levels of production.”

The poor record of reclaiming land in Egypt is usually attributed to the incompetence of the state bureaucracy. Waterbury, however, considers that the determinant factor must be the low quality of the soil in the areas ‘reclaimed’. No serious soil survey of the land to be reclaimed was undertaken prior to the initiation of reclamation work. Indeed, it was only in 1964 that a joint FAO-Egyptian survey analysed the soils of some 14 million feddans: by that time, Egypt had already begun reclaiming 600,000 feddans. [16]

The soils surveyed were classed in six different categories, ranging from excellent (I) to poor (IV) to uncultivable (VI). Significantly, much of Egypt’s ‘old lands’ (where most of the urban development has occurred) was classified in categories 2 and 3. The ‘new lands’ surveyed, on the other hand were classified as follows:



Class Area (in feddans)
Class I 8,328
Class II 217,000
Class III 604,542
Class IV 1,391,682



More recently, a USAID Mission notes:

“Of the 500,000 (reclaimed) feddans now producing crops, about 70 percent are Class IV, 25 percent Class III and the remaining 5 percent are Class II. Soil Classes III and IV have severe limitations for crop production, particularly Class IV which requires special soil treatment to obtain moderate yields at relatively high cost.”

Because of the low quality of the ‘new lands’, efforts to reclaim them have not only taken longer than expected but have also required very much more water than anticipated – thus adding considerably to costs. Moreover, much of the land has (predictably) fallen victim to salinisation: as a result, reports Waterbury,

“while old lands are going out of cultivation at the rate of at least 20,000 feddans a year, owing to urban and village sprawl, large chunks of the new lands have returned to a state of nature – 160,000 feddans by one observer’s estimate.” [17]

The implications for further large-scale economic development in Egypt are clear.

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Loss of water to industrial and domestic uses: The United States experience

Quite apart from paving over agricultural land, the urbanisation and industrialisation powered by the hydro-electricity a dam provides also leads to a loss of water. Water requirements for different industries are given in Table 9. As will be seen, they vary considerably from one manufacture to the next, but are generally very high.

Although water conservation and the development of recycling technology is likely to bring industrial water use in the US down to as little as 36 percent of total fresh water consumption, that saving could well be obliterated by increased demand for domestic water. Indeed, it is now estimated that the average US family of four consumes some 126,000 gallons a year (or 340 gallons a day). In the US as a whole, domestic and municipal water consumption now eats up 8.5 percent of total freshwater supplies – and that figure is expected to rise to 12.1 percent by the year 2000.

It would thus seem that in 1975 as much water was used in America to satisfy the requirements of industry and the domestic consumer as was required for agricultural purposes – 52 percent of fresh water supplies going for industrial and domestic consumption as against 47.5 percent for agriculture. By 2000, the comparable figures are expected to be 48.1 percent as against 51 percent. [18]

In areas of high rainfall, such high rates of water consumption for industrial and domestic purposes may well be tolerable. In hot areas where rainfall is low and evaporation rates are high, however, they can prove disastrous – particularly when, as the Southwestern US, water is already proving a limiting factor on food production.

  • In Pinal County, Arizona, for example, 100,000 acres of agricultural land have recently been taken out of production due to a lack of irrigation water. [19]
  • So too, land is steadily being withdrawn from cultivation in the Texas Panhandle as groundwater levels sink lower and lower and the cost of pumping water from ever deeper wells becomes correspondingly more expensive.
  • In Kansas, the situation is particularly severe: indeed, on current trends, 75 percent of existing irrigated cropland will have been taken out of production due to lack of water by 2025. [20]

Under such conditions, the water abstracted to satisfy industrial and domestic requirements can only result in a corresponding decrease in agricultural production. Unfortunately, when such competition occurs, water tends to go to the highest bidder. Invariably, industry wins out for it can afford to pay incomparably higher prices for water than agriculture. Indeed, water charges represent from 0.005 to 2.58 percent – with the average being 1 percent – of total manufacturing costs for the five most water-intensive industries (food and kindred products, pulp and paper, chemicals, petroleum, coal products and primary metals). [21]

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