Chinese drought could drain Africa
China's anticipated drought could pose a major threat to Africa's food security. Analysts in China and among expert international organisations anticipate that a major drought will severely affect China's 2011 grain and livestock production. If it happens, China will assert its weight on international commodity markets, and with its economic might and two decades of enormous investment in African agriculture, the continent's food security will be severely tested. There are at least three serious scenarios...
...none mutually exclusive: China could supplement its failing domestic grain market by importing from its own extensive land holdings in Africa; with immense investments in all African economic sectors, Beijing could call in debts to ensure a flow of food from its African partners; and in light of China's enormous balance of trade surplus, it could well outbid other countries for food imports - particularly African nations that depended last year on over $34 billion worth of imports to feed teeming cities and increasingly impoverished rural areas. So, to what extent might the Chinese drought be a testing time for Africa, and what lessons should leaders in Africa be learning from this looming challenge?
China is facing its worst drought in sixty years. It could be a testing time for Africa. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation,12.75 million acres of China’s 35 million acres of wheat fields had been affected by the drought. It said that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million head of livestock faced imminent shortages of drinking water. Quoting the Chinese state news media, Xinhua, on 8 February, the New York Times reported that “minimal rainfall or snow this winter has crippled China’s major agricultural regions, leaving many of them parched. Crop production has fallen sharply, as the worst drought in six decades shows no sign of letting up.”
Though China has reportedly 55 million tonnes of grain in available stockpiles, a significant change in diet and China’s growing consumerism mean that the drought may well find China’s importers on the international markets with a vengeance. China has traditionally been relatively self-sufficient when it comes to grains – mainly wheat and rice, but the potential crisis in China may well rebound on a continent that can afford it least of all: Africa.
Over the past two decades, China has invested heavily in African agriculture, and while China’s motives for such heavy investments have been interpreted in ways that range from imperialism to enlightened self-interest and philanthropy, the fact of the matter is that China’s direct investment in African agriculture has grown enormously. From the Sudan to Zimbabwe, from Angola to Mozambique, Chinese agricultural holdings range over eighteen countries on the continent. Chinese scientists, agricultural experts and farmers are becoming a common sight in Africa. One 2009 estimate from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce puts the number of Chinese experts in Africa at over 1,100 and the number of farm labourers at over 1 million. These Chinese experts help maintain at least 11 agricultural research stations and no fewer than 63 agricultural investment projects scattered over southern and eastern Africa.
Inevitably, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Joachim von Braun, many related land purchases throughout much of the continent are those of family farms, small cattle-grazing fields and even small village farms where "unequal power relations in land acquisition deals can put the livelihoods of the poor at risk".
The fear of the consequences of a major drought in China needs to be tempered by the possibility that improved rains will reverse the situation. Yet, if that is not to be the case, then what might be possible scenarios when it comes to Africa. There are at least three, none mutually exclusive. In the first place, China could begin to supplement its failing domestic market by importing directly from its own extensive land holdings on the African continent which have been the subject of over two decades’ acquisitions. Secondly, given China’s extensive investments throughout all economic sectors in Africa, one could readily foresee a time when Beijing calls in some debts to ensure a flow of food from its African partners to China. And finally, in light of China’s enormous balance of trade surplus, China could well outbid other countries that also depend upon food imports – particularly those countries on the African continent that depended upon over $34 billion worth of food imports last year to feed teeming cities and increasingly impoverished rural areas.
To what extent might the Chinese drought be a testing time for Africa, and what lessons should leaders in Africa be learning from this looming challenge?