The government abruptly cancelled it earlier this year, a warning shot that China must clean up its image, if not its act, to avoid both political and economic fallout, analysts say.
The rise of China as a dam-building power began in the early 2000s as its companies beat out then dominant Western competitors and just as anti-dam lobbyists were celebrating victories over the World Bank, until then the leading international dam financier. In the United States, where the golden era of dams peaked in the 1960s, scores are being decommissioned.
The industry, shepherded by the World Commission on Dams, was moving toward setting higher, mandatory standards to mitigate the negative impacts of large dams — environmental degradation, uprooting of communities, depletion of aquatic life — and maximize their positives: flood prevention, irrigation of farmlands, relatively clean energy for homes and industry.
‘‘The Chinese are now definitely diluting the standards debate. We’re back to talking about basics,’’ said Grace Mang, who monitors China’s dam industry for the U.S. -based environmental group International Rivers. ‘‘There is a pattern of projects that would have been delayed, maybe for decades, or dropped, coming back on line with the assistance of Chinese companies and banks.’’
Among such projects:
— Nepal’s West Seti dam, which would force some 10,000 poor villagers from their homes in a biodiversity-rich area. It hung in limbo after Australia’s Snowy Mountain Engineering Corp. failed to attract international funders, and the Asian Development Bank pulled out because the dam didn’t meet its standards. Six months after the cancellation, the Chinese took over the project.
— A number of dams being built inside or adjacent to nature reserves, including Ghana’s Bui Dam and two proposed on the Patuca River in Honduras, where a U.S. developer earlier pulled out for environmental reasons.
— The 1,500-megawatt Coca Codo Sinclair Dam, Ecuador’s largest ever infrastructure project, which would encroach on a vast rainforest between the Andes and the Amazon and possibly dry up the country’s highest waterfall, located in a UNESCO reserve.
— Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam, Africa’s largest. Protesters gathered at the Chinese Embassy in neighboring Kenya last year to denounce Chinese companies involved in the project, which they said would endanger the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of downstream farmers. Ethiopian officials defend it, saying less than 2 percent of the rural population has access to electricity.
The Chinese are taking some steps to improve their image. Sinohydro Corp., which says it controls half the global market for hydropower projects, is expected to release an environmental policy soon and dispatch public relations teams to its offices worldwide. An expert from China’s Institute for International Economic Research recently toured Southeast Asia to investigate problems caused by Chinese dams.
The Export-Import Bank of China, the major dam financier, has made some efforts to improve implementation of projects it backs. In a pattern found in other African countries, the Belinga dam planned within Gabon’s Ivindo National Park was to power other Chinese enterprises including a mine for iron ore to be shipped to China via a Chinese-built railway and seaport. However, the Exim Bank suspended funding for the dam, citing the national park as one reason.
‘‘The Chinese are seeking a Chinese way of operating at international environmental standards rather than have international standards imposed on them,’’ Mang said.
The Chinese are virtually silent on even such seemingly positive developments, reflecting a persistent lack of transparency on the issue.
The Associated Press sought comment for more than six months from major dam contractors, including Sinohydro, Guodian, China Three Gorges and China Southern Power, calling and submitting written interview requests. The companies provided Internet links to background information or reports about projects in some cases. But most companies didn’t respond at all, and those that did rejected requests for answers to specific questions.
Requests for comment on allegations of corruption associated with dam projects were either rejected or failed to draw a response from the Commerce Ministry, Foreign Ministry and the National Development and Reform Commission.
China, the world’s largest producer of hydropower, has honed its dam building skills at home, but experts say that its companies build to varying levels of quality abroad depending on what the clients demand.Continued...