Fri, Dec 09, 2011 - Page 9 News List

China’s dam-building exacts a heavy toll

Not only do Chinese-built dams inside the country as well as abroad uproot communities and flood agricultural lands, they also destroy natural environments and river systems

By Brahma Chellaney

As the world’s most dammed country, China is already the largest producer of hydropower globally, with a generating capacity of more than 170 gigawatts. Yet ambitious plans to boost its hydro-generating capacity significantly by damming international rivers have embroiled the country in water disputes with most neighbors, even North Korea.

GLOBAL CLOUT

More broadly, China’s dam building passion has spawned two key developments. First, Chinese firms now dominate the global hydropower equipment export market. Sinohydro alone, having eclipsed Western equipment suppliers like ABB, Alstom, General Electric and Siemens, claims to control half the market.

Second, the state-run hydropower industry’s growing clout within China has led the government to campaign aggressively for overseas dam projects by offering low-interest loans to other governments. At home, it recently unveiled a mammoth new US$635 billion investment program in water infrastructure over the next decade, more than a third of which will be channeled into building dams, reservoirs and other supply structures.

China’s over-damming of rivers and its inter-river and inter-basin water transfers have already wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems, causing river fragmentation and depletion, and promoting groundwater exploitation beyond the natural replenishment capacity.

EXPORTING DEGRADATION

The social costs have been even higher, a fact reflected in Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s (溫家寶) stunning admission in 2007 that, since 1949, China has relocated a total of 22.9 million Chinese to make way for water projects — a figure larger than the populations of Australia, Romania or Chile. Since then, another 350,000 residents — mostly poor villagers — have been uprooted.

So, by official count alone, 1,035 citizens on average have been forcibly evicted for water projects every day for more than six decades. With China now increasingly damming transnational rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Irtysh, Illy and Amur, the new projects threaten to “export” the serious degradation haunting China’s internal rivers to those rivers.

The time has come to exert concerted external pressure on China to rein in its dam frenzy and embrace international environmental standards.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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