Up a sweeping jungle valley in a remote corner of Cambodia, Chinese engineers and workers are raising a 100-metre-high dam over the protests of villagers and activists. Only Chinese companies are willing to tame the Tatay and other rivers of Koh Kong province, one of Southeast Asia’s last great wilderness areas.
It’s a scenario that is hardly unique. China’s giant state enterprises and banks have completed, are working on or are proposing some 300 dams from Algeria to Myanmar.
Poor countries contend the dams are crucial to bringing electricity to tens of millions who live without it and boosting living standards. Environmental activists and other opponents counter that China, the world’s No 1 dam builder, is willing and able to go where most Western companies, the World Bank and others won’t tread anymore because of environmental, social, political or financing concerns.
“China is the one financier able to provide money for projects that don’t meet international standards,” said Ian Baird, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin who has worked in Southeast Asia for decades. “You go to China if you want to have them financed.”
The consequence, critics say, is a rollback to an era of ill-conceived, destructive mega-dams that many thought had passed. The most recent trend is to dam entire rivers with a cascade of barriers, as China’s state-owned Sinohydro has proposed on Colombia’s Magdalene River and the Nam Ou in Laos, where contracts for seven dams have been signed.
Viewed by some in the developing world as essential icons of progress, dams in countries as far apart as Ecuador, Myanmar and Zambia have spearheaded or reinforced China’s rising economic might around the world. They are tied to or put up in tandem with other infrastructure projects and businesses, and power generation equipment ranks as China’s second-largest export earner after electrical machinery and equipment.
In energy-starved Cambodia, trade with China has risen to 19% of GDP from 10% five years ago, according to an Associated Press analysis of International Monetary Fund data.
The year-old $280 million Kamchay Dam in Cambodia’s Kampot province was the largest ever foreign investment when approved as well as a political flag-carrier for Beijing. It has been hailed by both governments as a “symbol of close Chinese-Cambodian ties.”
Cambodia’s electricity demand grew more than 16% a year from 2002 to 2011, with shortfalls largely met through costly oil imports, said Bun Narith, a deputy director general in the ministry of industry, mines and energy. Only 14% of rural homes have electricity, one of the lowest levels in Southeast Asia.
“We have no choice,” Bun Narith said. “Hydropower is the priority, and the Chinese have the initiative and capability, both financial and technical.”
The 20 hydro dams built, being constructed or under study in Cambodia, the bulk of them by the Chinese, would lift Cambodia out of literal darkness and make it energy self-sufficient, he said. “We should have a win-win policy, a balance between environment and energy. After all, electricity is also a basic human need.”
Electric rates have fallen in Kampot town since the opening of the nearby Kamchay Dam, but they remain high. “Everybody believed that after the dam is completed, there will be extra power to use in Kampot and the price will be much cheaper, but in fact there is not much change,” taxi driver Prum Virak said.
He said his house is without power three to four hours every day. The price of electricity has dropped to 920 riel (23 cents) per kilowatt-hour from 1,100 riel six months earlier when power was being imported from Vietnam. In Myanmar, where China may build as many as 50 dams, one re-ignited an ethnic insurgency in 2011 and fanned a wider, smoldering anti-Chinese backlash. Mega-dams in Africa and Latin America have also sparked sometimes violent protests. The Myitsone dam in Myanmar would have displaced thousands and flooded the spiritual heartland of the Kachin ethnic minority, which cited the project as one reason for again taking up arms.
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 US, 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 maximise 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 US-based environmental group International Rivers Mang. “The Chinese are seeking a Chinese way of operating at international environmental standards rather than have international standards imposed on them.”
Brian Richter, of the US-based Nature Conservancy, said improvements won’t come until sustainable standards can be verified by an independent body.
“The industry as a whole recognises that there’s a need, but the playing field has shifted and the Chinese companies are by far the dominant players,” he said. “The future depends on them, for better or worse.”