China's Approach to the African Water Crisis

Africa Geography Map
Africa, vast and varied, is on the
verge of extraordinary development.

Editor’s Note: China’s breathtaking transformation of their own country over the past couple of decades is accompanied by robust new Chinese enterprises all over the world. In this report on China’s activities in Africa, the Chinese are seen to be involved in infrastructure projects across this vast continent.

Everything about Africa is writ large – during the past twenty years, as China’s economy exploded, Africa’s population doubled. There are now over 900 million people living in Africa, and collectively the Africans have lower per capita wealth than the peoples of any other continent. But the potential in this vast land mass of over 3.0 million square kilometers – over 20% of the total land surface on earth and second only to Asia in size – is immense.

China brings to the Africans infrastructure projects that are, arguably, at lower cost and with fewer conditions than any other nation. They are now 2nd only to the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, and according to Columbia University economist Jeffery Sachs, “China gives fewer lectures and more practical help and thus offers Africa something new, a straightforward business relationship between equals based on mutual interest and non-interference in the internal affairs of its allies.”

Whether or not Africa will ultimately benefit more from rapid establishment of more railroads and power stations, for example, with other concerns such as the human rights records of the local governments coming later – has no simple answer. As Zulu Chief Buthelezi once said, “we cannot fight for freedom if we have no bread.” Civil engineering infrastructure is the backbone of wealth, and with wealth inevitably comes the desire and the means to build democracy.

Similarly, environmental challenges are more easily met when there is wealth. Build an aquaduct tunnel north from the Ubangi River to Lake Chad? Some environmentalists might find this horrifying – but if the local nations asked the Chinese to build such a conveyance, they would do it, and they wouldn’t require decades of legal briefs to get it done, either. If water were shipped from the Congo Basin to Lake Chad, all along the way people would have bread, and the depleted aquifers of the Sahel could replenish at last. And with full bellies, people might more easily consider the challenges of planetary stewardship, and the allure of peaceful coexistance. – Ed “Redwood” Ring

China’s Approach to the African Water Crisis
by Gordon Feller, May 31st, 2008
Dry Well with Stick
Sticks note the locations of sunken wells in a
dried-up pond in Filtu Woreda, Southern Ethiopia.
(Photo: US Aid)

In January 2008 China’s CGC Overseas Construction Company was to start work on a project to increase water production and distribution in Cameroon’s economic capital, Douala.

The company signed the deal for the project last December. It involves construction of pipe networks, wells and a potable water treatment plant and aims to boost Douala’s water production capacity from 115,000 to 260,000 cubic meters in a year.

The Cameroon project of CGC is just the latest in a series of water projects that companies from China are carrying out in African countries. While some of the companies are engaged in providing clean drinking water in African cities and villages, several others are assisting in building dams and water supply and distribution networks across resource-rich Africa. Though Africa as a whole has plenty of water, a number of cities in various countries across the continent lack direct access to potable water for their populations. The continent’s topography, too, poses a serious challenge in getting water to thousands of villages and communities.

Water is being treated by several countries as a vital commodity for not only ensuring proper sanitation but also for a whole range of socio-economic activities.

The Chinese were not, of course, the first to spot an opportunity here. Many companies from the developed world as well as local firms have established a presence in the water sector. But with the coming of the Chinese, they seem to be losing ground.

Chinese companies may not bring the latest technologies, but they offer a critical cost and labor advantage. They also seem not to be bothered by the rather small sizes of some of the water-related projects in Africa. Political support from Beijing has also played an important role in softening the entry of Chinese companies in Africa.

Western organizations and companies often come in with investments and expertise tied to development and human rights stipulations. Chinese firms are building dams and water treatment plants across Africa, guided more by revenue and diplomatic influence than environmental or human rights concerns.

Graph of Access to Clean Water by Continent
Source: UNDP Development Report 2006

The Columbia University economist Jeffery Sachs, in a conference in Beijing in late 2006, may have summed it up best: “China gives fewer lectures and more practical help and thus offers Africa something new, a straightforward business relationship between equals based on mutual interest and non-interference in the internal affairs of its allies.”

As a result, many African governments prefer to work with Chinese companies, who maintain a hands-off approach in the countries where they operate. There are also reports of Chinese firms offering ultra-small, cheap “micro-hydro” dams, which appeal to water-rich but power-short African nations. The Chinese have technical mastery over these micro-dams, which can generate tiny amounts of electricity from mere trickles of water. Hundreds of such systems are operating in China.

Besides undertaking water projects, Chinese companies are also building railways, telecommunication systems, highways and port facilities. The influence of the Chinese is growing by the day in Africa. According to reports, China has become Africa’s second largest aid donor and trading partner, behind the United States. At the moment, there could be as many as 700 Chinese companies active across the continent.

Among the firms well entrenched in Africa is China International Water and Electric Corporation, a state-owned enterprise under the direct jurisdiction of the central government. The company, which has a presence in several African countries, has undertaken projects in Cameroon, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Ghana, where it carried out the rehabilitation of water supply systems in the Volta region.

It has been working in Sudan since 1998, building pumping stations. China Jiangxi Corporation for International Economic & Technical Cooperation, which began working in Zambia in 2004, has sunk over 1,500 wells there.

China Geo-Engineering Company, has been working on the Kabwe water and sanitation project in Zambia, even in the wake of delays by the local government in disbursing its portion of the project funding. The government recently moved to pay some of the outstanding amount it owes to the company in counterpart funding for the project, which runs up to 2010.

China Geo Engineering in late 2005 won a tender to build the water supply network in Mozambique’s southern cities of Xai-Xai and Chokwe. Ten companies or consortia had bid for the conract. Similarly, China Henan International won a tender to supply water in two other Mozambican cities, Inhambane and Maxixe, beating out eight companies. Several Chinese companies working in Africa are importing material, equipment and accessories from back home, helping other firms in China to extend their business. But the growing might of the Chinese firms is causing resentment among its local competition.

In some countries, local industry players have been expressing concern over the ways Chinese firms are dislodging them as preferred contractors, especially for social projects including water systems. They accuse the Chinese firms of resorting to price undercutting to win contracts. But ultimately, China is building infrastructure that is helping to transform Africa.

Congo River
The mighty Ubangi River, northern tributary of the Congo.
Just a trickle north from this huge river could refill Lake Chad.
(Photo: Pete Chirico, USGS, Wikipedia Commons)

Additional EcoWorld reports on China:

  • China’s Corn Ethanol
  • China’s Coal
  • Cleaning Up China
  • China’s Energy Demand
  • China’s Renewable Energy
  • Wind Power in China
  • China’s Energy Outlook
  • Fuel Cell Development in China
  • China, Canals & Coal
EcoWorld - Nature and Technology in Harmony

3 Responses to “China's Approach to the African Water Crisis”

    China and its very large population is undoubtedly making an increasing mark in Africa. Their investment in Africa is growing at an exponential rate. Their man power and products and services and much more cheaper compare to Europe and USA.

    The trade with China is one of the theme to be discussed at the major and historic International Conference on Industry Growth, Investment and Competitiveness in Africa.

    Practical experiences and best practice on how to engage with China investment and make it work for Africa are invited as contribution to the IGICA International Conference. Potential contributors should register their interest at the IGICA website(

    It is expected that major Chinese industries and investors will be exhibiting at the IGICA International Trade Fair that forms part of the event

  2. john_water36 says:

    Join China and help Africa yourself. UNICEF has pledged to donate 10x the amount of water you drink to a struggling town in Ethiopia. All you have to do is buy bottled water! Check out

  3. Stephen Klaber says:

    Of course environmentalists would be horrified by the diversion of water from the working system where it is needed to the mess where it will simply be absorbed by weed growth. When you divert water from one place to another you are guaranteed to damage the environment somewhere else. The water is needed where it is.

    The way to restore Lake Chad is the clearance of the weeds that infest the entire Lake Chad basin, and the removal of the silt that they have left behind. Typha Australis, millions of hectares of it, dominates the area. This is a dessication machine and a siltation machine, a breeding ground for pests such as mosquitoes and Quelea. This weed can be harvested for biofuels ranging from charcoal to ethanol. This is the one biofuel source whose use improves your water supply. Continent-wide, weed clearance would strengthen you more than trade with China or America.


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