China Losing the Standards War

Published on 30th October 2007

China’s interest in forging ties with African governments and its willingness to fund African dams, mines, factories and roads “without strings” are tempting nations fed up with Western colonialism and paternalism. But just as the Western development model proved a less-than-perfect match for Africa, China’s development assistance has serious drawbacks.

China has a wealth of experience in dam building, which has, of late, proved tantalizing for African governments desperate to find reliable sources of energy. China is home to thousands of dams,   including what is probably the world’s most notorious, the Three

Gorges Dam. While proponents of the dam hailed it as an engine for development and growth, critics point to another side of the story, a saga of destroyed ecosystems and social impacts that is now coming to light.

Three Gorges’s gigantism is the root of some of its worst problems. The massive project set records for number of people displaced (at least one million), number of settlements drowned (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages), and length of reservoir (more than 400 miles). Now, its record-breaking environmental impacts are coming to fruition. The US business newspaper, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ reports, “a year after completion, the project has new problems - including landslides, water pollution and suggestions that the dam could contribute to the very flooding it was built to prevent.”  A top official said, “the problems are all more serious than we expected."

In an article on August 29, the Journal reported that the massive weight of water behind the dam is eroding the Yangtze River's shores, causing landslides. The reservoir is polluted from raw sewage runoff and the submergence of so much industrialized land.

By stopping silt from moving downstream, the dam has dramatically altered the river’s estuary and fisheries it supports. Seawater is now coming further inland. Because the silt-free waters downstream of the dam flow faster now, flood control structures have been damaged.

Three Gorges is not alone in its litany of seemingly intractable problems. According to the official Xinhua news agency, more than one-third of China’s 85,000 reservoirs have "serious" structural problems. A deputy minister of water resources recently called China's reservoirs "time bombs" that threaten the lives and property of those downstream, the Journal reports. In addition, China’s dams and diversions have depleted so many major rivers of water that they have either become slow-moving cesspools or dry for part of their course, adding to a nationwide water crisis that will only worsen with global warming.

Chinese officials aren’t talking about the troubling record of large dams with their own citizens, much less with African governments to whom they are selling their dam-building services. China is today building dams in dozens of countries around the world. Many African nations have poor or nonexistent environmental and social protections and in some cases, such as Burma and Sudan, they have no political space to speak out nor media to keep an eye on problem projects. Rivers such as the Zambezi, Nile and Congo could be seriously harmed by dam projects backed by China.  Chinese firms and lending agencies are involved in projects associated with serious human rights violations, like Sudan’s Merowe Dam. The cumulative social and environmental impacts of China's worldwide dam-building could outweigh the benefits these projects are intended to bring.

While China's internal standards for environmental assessment, access to information and resettlement have been improving in recent years, the nation's dam-builders may not feel compelled to adhere to these standards on dam projects elsewhere. China is not alone – northern dam-building nations have set aside their own high standards for mitigation, public disclosure and environmental analysis when it comes to building dams in the global south.

As China continues to reach out to African nations with development assistance, its global record on large dams could grow into a public relations disaster that threatens its reputation. To help repair the damage, China (and all other dam-building nations exporting their expertise) must step back from the worst projects, and ensure that those dams which are built are not doing more harm than good. China has an obligation to protect human rights and the environment under many international conventions, which it has signed and ratified.

China's central planning expertise is well-suited to assisting national agencies with comprehensive needs and options assessments, improving cumulative-impacts analysis for rivers with multiple dams, and finding ways to improving the efficiency of existing dams before building new ones. Its success in building poverty-busting microhydro projects, biogas digesters, clean stoves and rainwater harvesting structures could be a better fit for the problems found in many of the places where large dams are being prioritized. Starting with these steps, China could become a more effective partner for Africa in solving some of its most intractable problems.

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