A group of more than 40 officials from China, Africa and the U.N. have been in Beijing for three days discussing how to reduce the risks of drought. It has been technical stuff for policy makers on drought monitoring, water resource management and drought resilient farming, as well as dealing with the social and economic impacts of droughts. The meeting was part of Beijing’s overall dialogue with Africa, but these are all topics of obvious mutual interest, given the severe droughts that China has been experiencing such as the one continuing in the south and southwest of the country and the recurring ones on the North China Plain.
Africa’s droughts, like those in China, are expected to become more frequent and widespread as a result of climate change. The Horn of Africa is currently suffering the continent’s worst drought in 60 years, for which Beijing has promised $82 million in emergency grain and relief aid. Techniques and practices that China uses at home as well as farming methods such as film mulching to preserve for crops what water there is in arid areas are applicable in Africa (and vice versa).
Drought is one of the leading threats to Africa’s development as agriculture is the main means of livelihood for most of the continent’s vast rural population. Beijing is rarely rigid over what aid it will provide a country, and Chinese firms see investment opportunities in water management systems and export markets for technology they develop for home. More than 90% of Africa’s farmland relies solely on rainfall for irrigation.
The lack of water management systems in Africa means that drought also has a far more profound impact on food supplies there than it does in China, which is yet again forecasting a record grain harvest. However, this relatively greater vulnerability prompts a second-level concern among Africans, that China might divert grain and livestock production from the farmlands it owns in Africa to make up potential food shortfalls caused if not by its own droughts then by its growing food demands and changes in consumption patterns. That could put Africa’s ability to feed itself even further beyond it. Last year, African nations needed to import $34 billion worth of food to feed their growing cities. Apart from a potential need to increase the volume of its food imports, it also faces the risk that Chinese demand would drive up the cost of food on world commodities markets.
For the past two decades, Chinese companies have been buying African farmland, mostly but far from all, smallholdings and family farms. Chinese own farms in 18 of Africa’s 50 or so countries through at least 63 investments from Angola to Zimbabwe. There are at least 1,100 Chinese agricultural scientists and experts working in Africa, where China has at least 11 research stations, and at least 1 million farm laborers. All those ‘at leasts’ are because the numbers are based on Chinese official estimates from 2009. They likely undercount the country’s current farming activity on the continent.
It is easy to scaremonger here and to be critical of China’s engagement with Africa. In fact, cheap credit, world-class infrastructure companies, political pragmatism and, as noted above, a willingness to build what is asked for make for a compelling case to many African leaders to accept Chinese aid and investment. That said, China has its national interests, as does any Western aid donor to Africa, even if it is likely to express those in different ways. There is also a lack of transparency which commingles China’s state aid, trade financing and private investment. Nor should the impact that Chinese aid and investment often has on local environmental, social and labor conditions be sugarcoated.
The result of the Beijing meeting will likely be the emergence of some consensus on priority areas for co-operation between China and Africa on drought alleviation, and more infrastructure contracts related to that for Chinese firms in Africa. No doubt critics will deride them as further Chinese colonization of Africa this time by way of “drought diplomacy,” but this is increasingly the modern face of development assistance, which looks a lot more like commercial investment.