The cascade of eight dams being built on the Lancang River will affect ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream.

China has been buying arable land all over the world. As National Geographic points out, China eats about 20 per cent of the world’s food, reasonably expected for its 1.3 billion people. But the country only has nine per cent of the world’s farmland.

That means one thing: China has to buy arable land for food security.

According to The Guardian, China appears to be one of the more modest “neocolonialists” of African agriculture. A million Chinese farmers have joined the rush to Africa, according to one estimate, underlining concerns that an unchecked “land grab” not seen since the 19th century is under way.

Consultancy Africa Intelligence informs us that China sees Africa as a prospective spot to relocate Chinese farmers who had lost their land due to liberalisation and urbanisation. They have also proposed that Africa serve as a source of future supply for China’s food security. Meanwhile, the Chinese have bought up farmland in the Ukraine of all places.

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post last year reported a deal between Ukraine’s KSG Agro and China’s Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) in which China would be able to farm the area for up to 50 years. China has also been buying up Australian farmland.

The Australian Financial Review reports that Chinese companies are interested in investing more than $500 million in agricultural ventures ranging from dairy farming and ultra-fine wool production to animal husbandry and frozen vegetables.

One Chinese government-backed company, Shaanxi Kingbull Livestock Co, is intending to buy a 5000 hectare cattle station in Australia as a stepping stone to importing 10,000 high-quality beef cattle and calves from Australia each year.

The Chinese government-owned COFCO, led by president Patrick Yu, took control of Tully Sugar, one of the last major sugar assets in Australia, for $136 million. Several prime agricultural properties such as the well-known Bobbara Station, west of Yass, NSW, and the Upper Murray’s famous Mt Falcon Station have also been sold to Chinese buyers.

This has caused all sorts of concerns but it has to be put in context. University of Sydney research shows that Chinese investors own less than 1 percent of Australian farmland. Still, it’s a trend that’s likely to continue and likely to accelerate for one very good reason.

China is facing a perfect storm. Population is increasing, which fuels consumer demand. Housing more people means building homes where crops might normally grow. And environmental changes tend to limit the food output.  That’s made China dependent on food imports.

A 2012 report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development examined China’s domestic and global agricultural investment strategies, and found that China is becoming increasingly dependent on agricultural imports.

Indeed, the IISD report notes that soybeans have become China’s main imports, accounting for 38 percent of total agricultural imports, while other major agricultural imports include cotton (9 per cent), and palm oil (8 per cent). The majority of these imports come from Asia, North and South America, and Africa.

Importing too much would blow out its balance of trade. That also explains why China has to buy farmland in other countries.

Coming on top of policies of liberalisation and urbanisation, climate change is affecting China’s ability to produce food. “Climate change is affecting agricultural production through changes in temperature, water availability, soil condition, extreme weathers, crop diseases and pest outbreaks,” said the report’s leading author and China’s top scientist for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Professor Lin Erda from the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences. “Under a high greenhouse gas emission scenario, basic food supplies will become insufficient around 2030.”

Scientific American reports: “During the past half-century, the nation experienced less rainfall and declining river flows. At the same time, global warming is largely causing higher evaporation.

Even in places that are relatively rich in water resources now, fears are rising that farmers would lose the essential resource to grow their crops. That fear is acute in places like Linze County, an oasis city along the Silk Road. The rising temperature is causing glaciers, on which so much of the water supply in the oasis depends, to melt faster. The glacier water is greening more fields now, but when the glaciers disappear, they will leave the city with a severe water deficit within five years, says a leading scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences, Lin Erda, who is helping the locals offset that gap with water-saving agricultural technology.

Besides water deficit, other climate risks are coming into focus. Deep in the cornfields of northeast China’s Jilin province, Ma Chunsen, an insect scientist at the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences, in recent years spotted more holes on maize stems, left by an undesirable visitor — Asian corn borer. Such insects are a natural part of the life in cornfields, but they had never bred more than once a year until nowadays, Ma said. Chilly springs in this major corn-growing region used to hold back the hatching of Asian corn borer. Today, that hold is loosening due to the temperature rise.”

China is also facing an intractable water crisis by 2030. Estimates suggest that out of more than 600 cities in China, over 400 are water scarce. In 2009, China had a per capita water capability of 2079 cubic metres per year, well below the world average of 6225 cubic metres. By 2050, China’s total water deficit could be as great as 400 billion cubic metres.

“China faces most of the major challenges to sustainable agriculture,” according to an international team of researchers.

“Fast socioeconomic development, rapid urbanisation and climate change, along with very limited water resources and arable land per capita. Because arable land is available mainly in the water-scarce north, irrigation has become widespread, covering 45 per cent of the country’s agricultural land and accounting for 65 per cent of national water withdrawal.”

This might also explain China’s expansion into ports around the world. The Chinese have been building massive state of the art ports and harbors in Sri Lanka, off Myanmar, in Qatar, in Pakistan.

They have also been involved in upgrading port projects in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and Lamu in northern Kenya.

According to Robert D. Kaplan, chief analyst of Stratfor, it’s all about trade. “What unites all of these places is, they’re all in the Indian Ocean. They are all where the Afro-Asian continent meets the Indian Ocean, so that China eventually, through building these ports, will have access, commercial maritime access along the whole route that brings energy, oil and natural gas from the Middle East all the way to Asia.”

He could also add food to the list. These ports will be critical for China’s food supply now under threat by climate change.

China is also the world’s largest energy consumer. Its ferocious industrial expansion and urbanisation have driven a demand for electricity that has risen 10 per cent in a single year between September 2012-13.

This has come at a cost: China produces and consumes more coal than anywhere else in the world, and Beijing and other major cities suffer under terrible air pollution from the country’s coal-fired plants.

China is also expanding its hydropower around the world. According to the WorldWatch Institute many of China’s dam projects are being built on international rivers with no evaluation of the potential transboundary impacts.

The cascade of eight dams being built on the Lancang River will drastically change the Mekong River’s natural flood/drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Fluctuations in water levels and reduced fisheries caused by the three dams already completed have been recorded along the Thai-Lao border. Despite this, construction has proceeded without consultation with China’s downstream neighbors and without an assessment of the dams’ likely impacts on the river and its people.

Nathanial Matthews, a lecturer at King’s College in London, says that China is also exporting its hydropower expertise, with around 300 projects in 78 countries under construction by Chinese state-owned hydropower companies such as Sinohydro Corp and Dongfang Electric Corp.

In the Lower Mekong Basin, Chinese state-owned firms are building at least 30 dams in Myanmar, 14 in Laos, seven in Cambodia and three in Vietnam. But these are being built without the red tape and stricter environmental and social protection demanded by the likes of the World Bank or Asian Development Bank.

“In an era of global consumerism and rapidly increasing electricity demand, hydropower is increasingly slated as a clean and cheap solution,’’ Matthews writes.

“For economies such as China, it presents an opportunity for political and economic influence, to reduce greenhouse gases, and to meet domestic energy needs. The powerful forces that are behind hydropower’s expansion, however, are also those that tend to downplay its costs. These still weigh too heavily on the environment, and on and weaker nations and their people.”

There’s many good geopolitical reasons why China is expanding. But climate change is driving a big part of it.

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