Monday, May 27, 2013

LAND, VICTORIA AND UNSTOPABLE CHINA


Three events last week have interesting linkages with far reaching consequences for us.

The damage being meted out on Lake Victoria, President Yoweri Museveni’s shakeup in how his government is handling land issues and China’s insatiable demand for more and more resources made one seat up and take notice.

The Vision Group’s “Save Lake Victoria” project continues to highlight our wanton disregard for the lake, the source of water for the country’s largest urban centers, provides a livelihood for thousands of people on its shores and is a major factor in stabilizing the region’s climate.

Museveni, earlier this month he disbanded State house’s land unit and constituted another one in the Land’s ministry to put a stop to illegal evictions. The President then had a media event where he explained his thinking on resolving the land issues of the country.

It is to state the obvious, but how we utilize our land and water resources is not only going to make the difference whether we will become the middle income economy we envision in the next 20 years or not, but even more basically whether we will continue to feed ourselves or be racked by famine and food related instability.

The land pressure is there for all to see but the Vision Group’s project has shown that fishermen are having to rethink their lives as the lake’s fish stock have been depleted to historical lows.

Fishing communities are among the poorest in the world. They operate with a resource that is a public good, with a seemingly infinite abundance and little capital input required to make living. This gives them little to no incentive to plan and save for the future since when money runs out they just push their boats out onto the water and a few hours later are cash rich again. The disruption to their generation long way of life will come with fatal consequences.

For anyone who has been on the lake show to witness the untreated effluent we continue to dump into the lake from our factories and poor sanitation, you have to marvel that we even brush our teeth with tap water. It is so bad that National Water & Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) needs sh700b to build a new plant but more importantly to extend the pipe that draws water from the lake further out to tap cleaner water. A water remain affordable but it would be even more affordable were it not for the millions NWSC has to shell out in treatment costs.

Our land is another previously “infinite” resource that is coming under pressure from our fast growing population and inefficient use of it.
The knee jerk reaction by most is to lament our growing population and propose that we work towards slowing it down. At 3.2% growth a year we are among the fastest growing populations in the world.

The truth of the matter is that our population is growing at such a fast rate because we are poor. With poverty comes early marriages, lack of alternative recreation opportunities, low access to contraception and proper reproductive health care. Sort out the poverty and the population rate will slow on its own. This is how population growth has been slowed all over the world.

To spread out the affluence we need to more efficiently use land. And more efficiency land utilization will come with a permanent resolution to our convoluted land tenure system, which allow us to extract maximum value from the land by increasing our food production and creating more employment in related industry.

Which brings me around to China.

“China is going to eat your lunch. They’re going to make your food more costly to produce. They’re going to make water more scarce,” Michael Silverstein, a senior partner at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in Chicago sounded this warning to Americans in a recent edition of Forbes magazine. He might as well have been talking about Uganda.

The new food tastes and demands of the Chinese middle class will lead to hyper-competition fora commodities, and not just corn and soybeans, but I’m talking the stuff that farmers need to produce corn and soybeans: fertilizer and water,”
Silverstein said.

To illustrate. According to Forbes, in 2010 99% of China’s maize production was used as animal feed and this figure accounted for one in every five kilograms of world maize production. Maize importation to china is expected to more than double to 15 million tons in 2020.

China’s shift to a meat diet has led to a tenfold demand in water there. The linear logic suggests that as China’s middle class demand’s rise they will import more and more food and Uganda is a natural source of this new food.

Not be a doomsayer but our mismanagement of only these two resources – our water and land, means we are setting ourselves up for failure and greater instability as the rich become richer and the poor waste away.


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