Broader Concerns Over Chinese Dams

Burma’s decision to halt a massive China-backed dam project opens a floodgate of scrutiny and criticism on planned Chinese dams in Southeast Asia.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
cambodia-damm-305.gif A villager from an island that will likely be flooded if Cambodia's Sambor Dam is built.
Photo courtesy of International Rivers.

The Burmese government's stunning suspension of a massive Beijing-backed dam project has thrown the spotlight on China's dam building blitz in Southeast Asia and what environmental groups fear will be its adverse impacts on the region.

The halting of the Myitsone Dam project on the headwaters of Burma's key Irrawaddy River also highlights the growing might of non-governmental organizations scrutinizing infrastructure development projects, even in a Burma that has just emerged from five decades of iron-fisted military rule.

Risking legal action by key ally China, Burmese President Thein Sein decided last week to suspend the project, which had been assailed by green groups and opposition parties over its environmental and social impacts.

The dam was to generate some 6,000 megawatts of power, most of which was to be exported to power-guzzling China, while creating a reservoir the size of Singapore with a depth of a nearly 70-story building, affecting tens of thousands of people.

By scrapping the Myitsone project, Thein Sein may have opened a floodgate of scrutiny and criticism on proposed Chinese dams in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, including on the Mekong River—Southeast Asia's lifeline—which environmentalists say could spell disaster for ecology and fisheries.

Already, non-governmental groups in Burma, where a vast majority of people have no electricity, are demanding that other Chinese dams planned or under construction in the resource-rich country be reviewed or shelved.

"I think it is a little bit of a reality check for Chinese dam builders in that they now know they need to engage with civil society when they are building dams," said Grace Ming, China Global Program Coordinator for International Rivers, a group which studies water, energy and flood management needs.

"The Cambodian and Lao governments are not that responsive to their citizens and I think they will be more cautious when looking at dam projects, re-examining their current projects and making sure they are doing enough in terms of community engagement," she told RFA.

Dam-building model

At home, China is on a dam-building spree having more large dams than any other country in the world. It is also rapidly exporting its dam-building model overseas.

Chinese banks and companies are involved in the construction of nearly 300 dams in about 70 countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, according to International Rivers.

In Southeast Asia, the number of Chinese dams that have been proposed or under construction is just exhilarating—including 10 in Cambodia, 18 in Laos and 56 in Burma.

They are mostly projects developed or funded by Chinese institutions, or for which Chinese companies have won major contracts. For some of the projects, only a memorandum of understanding (MOU) has been signed. Others are being studied regarding their feasibility.

Chinese companies have already completed one dam in Cambodia, two dams in Laos and eight others in Burma.

Of the proposed Chinese dams, four are to be built on the Mekong River's mainstream: three in Laos—Pak Beng, Sanakham and Pak Lay—and the fourth in Sambor, Cambodia.

Even before a single dam is launched along the Mekong's downstream, the region is already feeling the adverse impacts.

Thanks again to China's dam construction at home—on the upstream of the Mekong River, which flows from the its source in the Tibetan plateau, traverses China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before pouring into the South China Sea.

"The upstream dams will give China by design the reservoir storage capacity to actually change the hydrology of the river," said Richard Cronin, the director of the Southeast Asia program at Stimson Center, an independent research institute in Washington.

Downstream dependency

Under the plans, the Chinese dams will store water during the wet season and release water in the river during the dry months. The dams are intended not only for power production but also supporting navigation on the river.

"This creates a dependency—so the downstream countries and their dams on the mainstream Mekong become dependent on China releasing the right amount of water at the right time during the dry season," Cronin told RFA.

"The dependency set-up is that if China weren’t storing enough water to do this, it's likely that these dams [in Laos, Cambodia and Burma] will not be commercially viable."

Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded in the downstream countries or the lower Mekong basin, which is the world's biggest inland source of fish.

For countries such as resource-starved Laos, hydropower from dams is largely for export—to neighboring Thailand.

"In the short term, they see free money in terms of export revenue with almost no investment. What they are not looking at is the longer term, even late short term, impact on food security, livelihoods, fisheries, agriculture and so on," said Cronin.

"Ultimately, the government has to pay the price for that—the issues go far beyond resettling a few thousand people [to make way for the dams]."

Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma were saddled this month with the worst floods in a decade after reeling from severe drought early in the year. China was blamed for both disasters.

"Both arguments have some plausibility but there is no documentation because China is not transparent about the operations of its dams," Cronin said.

China has rejected allegations that its poor water management caused drought in downstream countries, challenging them to visit a key Mekong upstream Chinese dam to gauge for themselves the water levels.

Beijing has also defended the controversial Myitsone Dam project in Burma, saying it has "gone through scientific verification and strict examination [on] both sides."


For the large part, however, the Chinese government and the project's Chinese developer, China Power Investment, were unresponsive to attempts by civil society groups to establish dialogue and communication, said Mang of International Rivers.

The surprising success of civil society groups in Burma in campaigning for a halt to the Myitsone dam project "demonstrates that NGOs in host countries cannot be ignored," she said.

The suspension of the Myitsone Dam project also underlines a growing perception that dams cannot be built at any costs.

In fact, some Chinese dam builders and financiers, Mang said, are already learning to address civil society concerns.

She cited reported cases of Chinese companies withdrawing from controversial projects as a "social responsibility," pulling back funding in response to environmental concerns or facing a barrage of questions from stock investors over company policies and the risks of investing abroad.

"Myitsone Dam serves as a reminder that if they fail to engage, they do so at their own peril."

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