China's dams: both welcome and worrying

Environmentalists gathered in Beijing have expressed concern over China's increasing hydro-power clout and its plans to build hundreds of more dams in the developing world.

BEIJING // The building of the Gilgel Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia, upstream from Lake Turkana, will do much more than affect the water flow, an African environmentalist said as she brought her message to China this week.

With flow into the lake affected by the partly Chinese-funded dam, rising salinity will make the water undrinkable and kill the fish indigenous people rely upon for food, fears Ikal Angelei, director of the Kenyan group, Friends of Lake Turkana.

"The resources are already strained enough. Any further strain would cause deaths and conflict," said Ms Angelei, one of three campaigners who spoke to journalists in Beijing this week to raise concerns over the environmental and human cost of some of the many dam projects in the developing world being financed or built by Chinese interests.

According to the US-based International Rivers, Chinese companies have signed contracts or memoranda of understanding for at least 250 dam projects in 68 countries, and the state-owned Sinohydro claims to have more than half the global market for hydropower projects.

China's dominance in hydropower projects is just part of a wider expansion of the activities of Chinese companies in the developing world, particularly Africa, where access to natural resources is often given in return for the building of infrastructure.

The Gilgel Gibe III dam project, which is costing US$2.1 billion (Dh7.7 billion), has proved controversial enough that the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, among others, are not providing funding.

Instead, a Chinese bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world's largest bank by market capitalisation, has helped the multibillion-dollar project get off the ground by underwriting the work of the Chinese contractor Dongfang Electric Corporation.

"We urge ICBC to reconsider its position. They're putting this money where everybody else has walked away from the project," added Ms Angelei.

"Because of the impact it will have on the communities, they will be indirectly starting a war in this part of Africa."

While acknowledging some of China's overseas development projects can "bring a lot of benefits for host countries", Peter Bosshard, policy director for International Rivers, said other schemes were carried out without environmental impact assessments or involved "serious human rights violations".

"There is often a lack of transparency and consultations, particularly with civil society groups and host countries," he said.

Controversy over China's overseas dam building comes at a time of heightened concern regarding hydropower projects within the country's borders.

In particular, dam-building on rivers such as the Mekong that originate in the Tibetan plateau has led to worries in countries downstream that water flows will be disrupted and the risk of natural disasters increased.

Other Asian countries, too, have angered neighbours with their hydropower schemes. This week Laos postponed the go-ahead for a dam on the lower Mekong because of opposition.

Yet China's overseas hydropower schemes remain a key focus for controversy not least because there are so many of them.

There have been cases where a Chinese bank has "taken up a loan that nobody else would touch", according to Johan Frijns, co-ordinator for the Dutch-based pressure group Bank Track.

Some Chinese banks, he said, were making "a lot of effort to [promote] sustainability" within their home country, yet overseas their activities sometimes led to "a really disappointing situation".

"We call upon Chinese banks to apply the policies that are routinely applied in China when they are investing abroad," he said.

"Chinese banks [should] make sure the clients they serve adopt standards of environmental protection and human rights."

Although some Chinese companies have agreed to follow Chinese laws when working overseas, said International Rivers' Dr Bosshard, many companies felt social responsibility was not their concern, especially if they were not the main contractor on a project. Campaigners say they often struggle to get a response when their concerns are raised. Some opposition to Chinese dam-building overseas was because observers were "not accustomed to the rise of China", according to Zhang Haibin, an associate professor in Peking University's Centre for International and Strategic Studies whose main research interest is international environmental politics.

"They are unable to adapt to the new phenomenon - the rise of China. They're doubtful or they're concerned or they're nervous," Dr Zhang said by telephone.

Chinese companies are launching projects in Latin America or Africa at the initiative of these nations' governments, he added.

"I meet delegates of these countries and they say, 'You're very much welcome because you're helping us to fight against climate change by building these dams,'" he said.