China’s frenzied dam building hit a wall recently in Myanmar, where the government’s bold decision to halt a controversial Chinese-led dam project helped to ease the path to the first visit by a US secretary of state to that country in more than a half-century.
The now-stalled US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, located at the headwaters of Myanmar’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, was designed to pump electricity exclusively into China’s power grid, despite the fact that Myanmar suffers daily power outages.
The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of China’s State Council hailed Myitsone as a model overseas project serving Chinese interests. The Burmese decision thus shocked China’s government, which had begun treating Myanmar as a reliable client state (one where it still has significant interests, including the ongoing construction of a multibillion dollar oil and natural-gas pipeline).
Despite that setback, China remains the world’s biggest dam builder at home and abroad. Indeed, no country in history has built more dams than China, which boasts more dams than the rest of the world combined.
A DAM A DAY
Before the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. Now the country has more than half of the world’s roughly 50,000 large dams, defined as having a height of at least 15m, or a storage capacity of more than 3 million cubic meters. Thus, China has completed, on average, at least one large dam per day since 1949. If dams of all sizes are counted, China’s total surpasses 85,000.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, China’s dams had the capacity to store 562.4km3 of water in 2005, or 20 percent of the country’s total renewable water resources. Since then, China has built scores of new dams, including the world’s largest: the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
China is also the global leader in exporting dams. Its state-run companies are building more dams overseas than all other international dam builders put together. Thirty-seven Chinese financial and corporate entities are involved in more than 100 major dam projects in the developing world. Some of these entities are very large and have multiple subsidiaries. For instance, Sinohydro Corp — the world’s largest hydroelectric company — boasts 59 overseas branches.
PROFIT OVER PEOPLE
Both the profit motive and a diplomatic effort to showcase its engineering prowess drive China’s overseas dam-building efforts. China’s declared policy of “noninterference in domestic affairs” actually serves as a virtual license to pursue dam projects that flood lands and forcibly uproot people — including, as with Myitsone, ethnic minorities — in other countries. However, it is doing the same at home by shifting its focus from dam-saturated internal rivers to the international rivers that originate in the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria.
China contends that its role as the global leader in exporting dams has created a “win-win” situation for host countries and its own companies. However, evidence from a number of project sites shows that the dams are exacting a serious environmental toll on those hosts.
As a result, the overseas projects often serve to inflame anti-Chinese sentiment, reflected in grassroots protests at several sites in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Moreover, by using a Chinese workforce to build dams and other projects abroad — a practice that runs counter to its own “localization” requirement, adopted in 2006 — China reinforces a perception that it is engaged in exploitative practices.