Dams muddy China’s image

by Brahma Chellaney

China’s frenzied dam building at home and abroad is emerging as a flash point in inter- and intrastate relations in Asia. Burma’s decision to suspend work on a controversial Chinese-funded dam marks a tactical retreat on a project that has symbolized China’s resource greed and is a trigger for renewed ethnic insurgency in areas of northern Burma (aka Myanmar).

The Myitsone Dam, where work is being halted, is one of seven dam projects in northern Burma sponsored by China to generate electricity for export to its own market, even as much of Burma suffers from long power outages every day. China also has been erecting dams on its side of the border on the rivers flowing to Burma and other countries — from Russia to India.

The projects have drawn attention to their mounting environmental and human costs. In Burma, the submergence of vast tracts of land and the forced displacement of thousands of residents have instigated new intrastate disputes, leading to renewed fighting and the end of a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army and government forces.

The giant, 3,200-megawatt Myitsone Dam — at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River, the cradle of Burmese civilization — was conceived as China’s project for China. The suspension of work on the largest dam project, so as to help stem a groundswell of public anger, represents a blow to China and a victory for local communities who had battled to protect their livelihoods and environment.

Burma is just one of several countries where hydropower projects financed and built by China have triggered local backlashes. China — the world’s biggest dam builder at home and abroad — is currently erecting giant dams in a number of countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, besides damming transnational rivers on its territory and thereby spurring growing concerns in downstream countries.

China contends that its role as the global leader in exporting dams has created a “win-win” situation for the host countries and its companies.

Yet evidence from a number of project sites shows that, with Chinese dam builders still to embrace environmental-sustainability standards, those dams are imposing serious social and environmental costs. China is demonstrating that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-held Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Burma, or in other human rights-abusing countries.

In Pakistan-held Kashmir, it has even deployed thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops at the dam and other strategic projects. Yet it loudly protests when foreign firms seek to explore for oil in blocks offered by Vietnam and others in the disputed South China Sea.

China’s declaratory policy of “noninterference in domestic affairs” actually serves as a virtual license to pursue dam projects that flood ethnic-minority lands and forcibly uproot people in other countries, just as it is doing at home by shifting its dam-building focus from internal rivers to international rivers that originate in the Tibetan Plateau, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Manchuria.

Today, as many as 37 Chinese financial and corporate entities are involved in more than 100 dam projects in the developing world. Some of these entities are very large and have multiple subsidiaries.

For instance, Sinohydro Corporation — which is under the supervision of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of China’s State Council and is made up of 10 holding companies and 18 wholly owned subsidiaries — boasts 59 overseas branches.

The frenzied dam-building at home and abroad has spawned two developments:

(1) Chinese companies now dominate the global hydropower-equipment export market. Sinohydro alone claims to control half the market.

(2) The growing clout of the state-run hydropower industry in policymaking has led China to aggressively seek dam projects overseas by offering attractive, low-interest loans and to increasingly tap the resources of rivers flowing to other countries from Chinese-ruled territories.

It was HydroChina, the country’s largest dam builder, that last year revealed government-approved sites for new mega-dams, including one larger than the Three Gorges Dam to be built virtually on the disputed border with India.

In a number of nations, ranging from Burma and Congo to Laos and Zambia, Chinese dam construction is aimed at creating the energy infrastructure to extract mineral ores and other resources to feed the voracious demand in China.

Burma is not the only case where Chinese dam building has triggered violence. From Sudan to the restive Shiite-dominated areas of Pakistan-held Kashmir, such projects have sparked violent clashes and even police shootings.

In Burma, however, the violence spread from the Myitsone Dam — where several small bombs went off in April 2010 — to other Chinese projects, including the Dapein and Shweli dams.

China’s dam projects in developing countries showcase its growing economic ties with them. In reality, however, these projects often serve to inflame growing anti-Chinese sentiment in those countries.

China has contributed to such sentiment by refusing to abide by international standards or its own regulations, including the State Council’s 2006 directives that Chinese overseas businesses, among other things, “pay attention to environmental protection” and “support local community and people’s livelihood cause.”

The perception that China is engaged in exploitative practices abroad has been reinforced by the fact that it brings much of the workforce from home to build dams and other projects. This practice runs counter to the Chinese Commerce Ministry’s 2006 regulations — promulgated after anti-Chinese riots in Zambia — that called for “localization,” including hiring local workers and respecting local customs.

China can stop its dam builders from further undermining its image by enforcing its regulations and embracing internationally accepted standards.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of the newly released “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”