Grabbing: China's unstoppable grabbing of water and land

(To Gino Lanzara)

My friends, and not those of fortune, here we are again on the tables of the geopolitical stage with an unusual scheme: the sacred, profane, the current panorama.

Il Sacred divine. “In the beginning God created the sky and the land. The land it was formless and deserted and darkness covered the abyss and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. " One can believe or not on the original causes, but that water and earth were the founding elements is beyond question; the same elements that, metaphorically, the Persians demanded of the subjugated peoples, and which were denied them by Athenians and Spartans1, who claimed their freedom by throwing the emissaries of the King of Kings into the depths of wells destined for the condemned, who could do nothing against a stubborn people of philosophers and warriors, who made courage and rationality the basis of a Human Sacredness, that same stupefied and watery intangibility found in the driest of places, the Sahara, which guards the Cave of the Swimmers, dear to those who have found passion and involvement in the story of László Ede Almásy, the inspirer of The English Patient.

Il Sacred and Profane: the VII Commandment, on which there should be no need to dwell on it, but which the front pages of the newspapers daily call to attention; small spoilers: the term grabbing, take possession of it, you will often hear it.

Il Profane. It is undeniable that the first communities were founded on the banks of large and constant river courses2: still today the per capita water availability is an index of the absolute wealth of the territory; it hits the Mesopotamian area, asphyxiated and tied to Turkish interests3 Iranians4, with Tehran penalized by questionable political choices relating to Lake Urmia in western Azerbaijan, and Baghdad deeply weakened in a basin, that of Tigris and Euphrates, which also affects Syria, Saudi Arabia and partly also Jordan and Kuwait.

(Apparently) trivial question: what is water for today? To quench the thirst, to sanitize, to cultivate, to illuminate, to produce, to cool the plants of the most modern nuclear power plants; about 15 of the leading French, American and Chinese companies in the world, busy giving drink to the thirsty, compete for a market worth no less than 300 billion euros per year.

The availability of water has a direct impact on food and energy production capacities and, consequently, on national trade balances. From this point of view, the techniques of water discovery, collection, distribution, use and recovery become strategic, so much so as to induce the hegemons, essentially the occupants of the seats of the UN Security Council, to acquire as much water as possible; precisely the UN in 1997, on the basis of the standardization provided by the Helsinki Rules in 1966, laid the foundations of the principles of international law on the subject which, however, did not dispel the doubts about the principles of sharing, of equitable use of water , of the obligation not to cause damage.

Now the geopolitics, especially the Water Wars5, conflicts that have already been talked about for at least twenty years, and that clarify how Hydrogen, Oxygen and an electric shake act as an environmental, economic, strategic, stability factor, and what power are invested in countries that, being upstream of rivers , are interested in the construction of containment works financed by private funds that are not very attentive to political and social dynamics6.

Fighting in the near future for blue gold, becoming more frequent than it is for oil, would revive dynamics already experienced7. Multinational river systems are found on all continents8 and affect the life of at least 40% of the world population; but it is above all in MO, in the MENA area9 which stands out the role that water, even the fossil, has played in delineating territories and in shaping geopolitics and economics.

Just look at Egypt, in strong demographic growth and with a difficult water supply dependent on the Nile, a river that bathes as many as 9 countries; agreements made in other times cannot contain the thrusts of ahydropolitics10 strongly conditioned by exogenous factors, and which is embodied in the Ethiopian Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, sword of Damocles leaning on the Egyptian Nilotic aspirations.

The recent Israeli-Palestinian events refer to the problem of the waters of the Jordan, a dilemma that cannot be solved because it is bound to ideological and historical reasons from which neither party intends to withdraw since 1955, or Johnston Plan, technically valid but politically unmanageable, to reach the 60s, first with the Arab attempts to divert the Banias and Yarmuk rivers, then, currently, with the continuing disputes over the Upper Jordan basin, geologically extended from southern Anatolia to Northeast Africa, which includes the Lebanese Beqaa Valley, the Sea of ​​Galilee (Lake Tiberias), the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea, and which politically involves Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan11, in addition to the future Palestinian state.

Assuming that it is not the intention to assign any taddema of innocence, it must be said that the Israeli water policy, the daughter of unparalleled aridity, is rigid, just as the Palestinian protests are vehement; while an Israeli approach resists either scientific which tends to create water resources not least with desalinators, wastewater recycling, cloud recharging with silver iodide crystals, both politician which facilitates its own community but sometimes from positions object of criticism by the international forum, on the other Palestinian there is an internal instability which aggravates delays and inefficiencies, and inhibits investments. Realistically, the know how Israeli is particularly functional in maintaining profitable relations with both Egypt and Jordan, to which Israeli water technology certainly comes in handy.

In general, a massive overall increase in water volumes thanks to the enhancement of alternative sources12 it appears impossible: the only feasible strategy to counter the shortage remains the containment of demand. The common social opposition to tariff increases leads to a precarious political exercise which aims to prevent the loss of consensus.

The strategic increase in the liquidity supply thanks to the realization of large projects shifts the problem from the internal sphere to the supranational one. It is interesting to evaluate the actions of the IS, which aimed at controlling oil and water, fighting above all in the areas of large dams13; a strategic positioning for two reasons: the presence of water allows you to stay in the chosen territory for a long time and, at the same time, puts entire areas in check, since the destruction of even a single dam would have devastating consequences on the resident population.

It can be said that water flows above and below the Middle Eastern political surface. Interconnection and globalization amplify regional problems, and translate them from the original areas outwards. Water is one conditio sine qua non which knows no half measures, is the most abundant chemical element in nature capable of ascending to the concept of power.

Water crises rise to a security and hegemonic problem and, in their cyclical nature, they can lead to a Malthusian crisis14how much they can stimulate adaptive changes; remains a hydro-hegemony declined in the form of careful checks both on water availability and on social aggregates, an aspect that leads us to believe that if the theses put forward regarding the wars for water indulge in a sensitive pessimism, the cooperative motivations present themselves with a excessive optimism.

Water, as a conceptual element of power, therefore emerges within a context where both further hegemonic principles and other wars of position find space15 to there Gramsci. In any case, representing the war danger as solely connected to water risks only partially sketching a reality that cannot be enucleated by the complex of geopolitical tensions, which are also affected by multi-tiered analyzes, at a local and global level, in an increasingly less context. sure it suffers from the absence of a clear geopolitical hierarchy.

The geostrategic rivalry is the background to the decisions of China and India to build dams, divert, alter the course of the rivers, ionize the clouds on the Tibetan plateau to increase rainfall; in Africa, Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa are facing each other over the quarrel concerning the GERD, which while on the one hand is fueling the energy ambitions until Ethiopian, on the other it is already fueling strong instability in the most populated and militarized country of the region, Egypt. With regard to GERD, the Sino-Russian positions have become interpreters of diplomatic tactics that mark the distance with the USA; both Beijing and Moscow need it status quo Ethiopian and Sudanese remains stable, so as to allow the construction of a Russian military base in the Red Sea - Suez - Horn of Africa area, an extension that China considers important in the context of the Silk Road.

Between water stress and geopolitics there are two links to be considered: excess water due to glacial melting that has opened new sea routes in the Arctic, and objective difficulties of reconciliation between countries, many of which are affected by the presence of water basins which have risen to fame after the end of the USSR and Yugoslavia, for which three factors stand out: geographical position, water use policy and variability of the context.

Water issues, especially in terms of water grabbing, introduce the other biblical element: the earth.

Since the last century, globalization has been the ideal humus for the spread of the phenomenon of land grabbing, socio-economic event thanks to which multinationals and foreign governments acquire control16 of large estates in countries other than those of origin. The need to obtain large tracts of land lies in the need both to guarantee one's own food safety and to ensure full control of nodal points of interest along the communication routes.

Il land grabbing it is more or less present in different continents, and is often linked to debt trap, or the fact that the same ground on which the sovereignty of the state should be exercised17, is offered as a guarantee for the loans received18, a technique in which Beijing excels, with over $ 1,8 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Diplomacy, geopolitics, aggressive foreign investment strategy, have recently led to about 30 agricultural cooperation treaties capable of ensuring access to arable land in foreign countries after the exchange of technology, training and infrastructure.

China's strategy is conservative: the government uses financial mechanisms both to protect investments and to maximize long-term supply options19. Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, said that in a short time, and without firing a single bullet, China has conquered more land than the East India Company. If technically it can't be talked about theft, given that the territories are sold as a result of breach of contract, however, it is impossible not to stigmatize various aspects, substantially connected both to the inability to negotiate of the specific contractors, chosen not by chance for their intrinsic institutional weakness, and to the absence of supranational structures devoid of any preventive control activity.

If it is true that the previous and neo-Atlantic Montenegrin administration has sinned by a guilty naivety in accepting the Chinese conditions for the creation of an expensive and questionable communication route20However, it is equally true that the absence of a European geopolitical perspective has been disorienting.

If it is not hypothesize to pay off debts on behalf of third parties, it is also not acceptable to allow, after Belgrade has already received 4 million doses of Sinopharm, the intensification of the presence of Beijing and its infrastructural networks branched into the heart. continental Balkan, after having witnessed its entry into Latin America and Africa, a hypothesis that could reiterate what happened in 2017 in Sri Lanka, with the forced concession of the port of Hambantota for a time that, in February, was estimated not less than 198 years. From this point of view, the story that is affecting the Sino-Iranian liaison is to be followed, where the boundary that separates the interests of each from the expectations of the other is still vague and fleeting, but which is united by a partnership based on oil and on the possible institution of a joint banking institution, which would make it possible to avoid the use of the USD.

Chinese investments in Iran, for the next 25 years, will amount to about 400 billion USD, and will be directed towards sensitive sectors21, in addition to a review of military cooperation, to be related to the American disengagement which has created spaces that Beijing intends to fill also in Afghanistan, where internal security rises to a Chinese national interest, sensitive to a stability that requires the inclusion of Kabul in the Pakistani Corridor.

Meanwhile, in Islamabad, the restructuring of 3 billion in interest on a loan of 31 billion granted by Beijing to finance energy infrastructures was denied.

Ankara completes the Chinese wedge which, in this way, reached the Mediterranean thanks to the huge economic aid granted which has already allowed both the acquisition, by Beijing, of 65% of the third largest terminal for container Turkish located in Istanbul, and 51% of the Sultan Selim Bridge designed to connect Asia and Europe across the Bosphorus, not to mention the signing of numerous bilateral trade agreements that also affect nuclear energy, as well as the granting of billionaire loans.

The Chinese geopolitical drop, in short, shows nothing other than, despite the passage of time, hegemonic thrusts and power projections, even if with asymmetrical tools, recall the Persian imperialism of yesteryear: never before have water and land been so important.

1 Herodotus

2 Tigris and Euphrates; currently their limitations due to Turkish interventions penalize southern Iraq and Syria. The project, since the 90s, has also been strongly opposed by Kurdish minorities, who see a renewed control system

3 Ankara is carrying out the Southeastern Anatolia Project (SAP), relating to the development of the agricultural sector and the production of electricity (22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants).

4 Tehran has developed dam systems that affect the major tributaries of the Tigris River

5 In 2018 a report by the World bank cited 507 conflicts related to the control of water resources.

6 In 2015, the end of the works for the construction of a dam that interrupted the flow of a tributary of the Brahmaputra, triggered a diplomatic clash between China and India, downstream, which denounced the risk of a reduction in the flow of water in terms of irrigation and potability for its river villages. As a result, Beijing has stopped transmitting data on the flow of water, which is necessary to predict floods. The same can be said for India, which affects Pakistan's water supplies

7 The 6 1967-day war against Egypt and Syria marked the beginning of a conflict related to the security of Suez and the 2 Straits of Tiran on the Red Sea; water remained at the center of the Arab-Israeli rivalry as Syria and Jordan entered the scene. The final outcome determined the occupation of strategic areas both from a military and water point of view (Golan Heights)

8 India and Bangladesh contend over the Ganges; Mexico and USA on Colorado; Czech Republic and Hungary on the Danube. In Central Asia, five former Soviet republics are divided between Amu Darya and Sjr Darya, 11 states Nile and Niger, nine the Amazon

9 Middle East and North Africa

10 This meaning is determined by the increasing value of water, by the difficulties relating to the quality and quantity of supplies, by the possibility of access

11 Now engaged in the Water National Project

12 Eg, fossils

13 The most violent clashes were recorded for the control of the Mosul dam

14 It occurs when population growth exceeds the production of food resources; Malthus hypothesized that while technological progress can increase the supply of resources such as food by improving survival standards, the abundance itself would lead to population growth, capable of bringing the supply per capita back to its original level.

15 Like the kind of confrontation in which economic, political and social forces do not confront each other militarily but act to facilitate, challenge or stop hegemony.

16 Through the purchase, leasing and use of sovereign wealth funds

17 Among the most relevant countries we mention: Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, Liberia, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and parts of Eastern Europe

18 Among the major predators, in addition to the USA, we include the UK, Holland, China, India, Brazil, UAE.

19 China has acquired thousands of hectares of land in Argentina for agriculture  

20 1 billion euro towards the Export Import Bank

21 Banks, telecommunications (5G and the BeiDou satellite), healthcare, information technologies (internet control systems), roads, ports, infrastructures

Photo: Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China / Xinhua / web