Smartening up Global Infrastructure

Peter Bosshard

John Briscoe, one of the most vocal proponents of aggressive global dam building, argues that the World Bank should take a book from China’s page and step up its support for large hydropower projects. China Dialogue, the Chinese-English internet platform which published John’s commentary, asked me for a response to this opinion piece. In my response, I argue that dams are an outdated technology, and that a smarter approach to energy development is possible – in China and internationally. Here is my commentary for China Dialogue.

Investment in agriculture, infrastructure and industrialization are three essential pillars of economic development. A hard-won lesson of past experience is that such investments must integrate social and environmental factors if they are to achieve successful long-term development.

Like other countries, China pays a heavy price for past efforts at economic development which ignored the nation’s social and environmental limits. Mindless industrialization destroyed forests and impoverished whole regions. The overgrazing of fragile grasslands is expanding deserts and blanketing Northern China with ever more frequent sand storms. Short-sighted industrial investments pollute the country’s air, soil and water. According to the World Bank, such pollution causes 750,000 premature deaths in China every year.

The lessons that apply to economic development generally also hold true for the water and energy sectors. If built smartly, dams are an important option of electricity and water supply in many countries. Yet as the independent World Commission on Dams has found, “in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure [their] benefits, especially in social and environmental terms.” Up to 80 million people have been displaced for reservoirs around the world, and many of them were impoverished in the process. Dams which trap sediments have caused the loss of thousands of square kilometers of fertile deltas, and have made coastal cities (such as New Orleans) more vulnerable to storms. The high-level Millennium Ecosystem Assessment found that dams and other river diversions have turned freshwater into the ecosystem which is most threatened by the extinction of species.

Erosion caused by the Three Gorges Dam
Erosion caused by the Three Gorges Dam
In China, hydropower can help to move the country away from polluting coal consumption. Yet like in other countries, many dam projects have not respected the limits of ecosystems and society – with serious long-term costs to the whole country. The Three Gorges Dam has unleashed uncontrolled erosion, and experts fear that it may have massive long-term impacts on the ecosystems of the Yangtze River, its delta, and the East China Sea. At least 18 million people have been displaced by reservoirs in China. While Chinese resettlement policies are comparatively thorough, abuses have caused frequent protests. If not planned and operated diligently, dams can also create serious seismic risks. Chinese scientists working at home, in Japan and the US have found strong evidence indicating that the Zipingpu Dam may have triggered the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008.
The lesson of this experience is not that no more dams should be built. But smart water and energy sector development is more than dumping concrete into a river. To avoid long-term costs for the environment, public health and the economy, social, environmental and economic factors must be considered equally when the most appropriate water and energy options are identified. More and more frequently, the best options will turn out to be renewable energy from wind, geothermal and modern biomass plants, and improvements in water and energy efficiency. Today’s developing countries don’t need to use the approaches and technologies of the early 20th century to resolve the problems of the 21st.

If China had avoided a deterioration in the nation’s energy efficiency during the 10th Five-Year Plan, it could have saved more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam is generating, and at a lower cost. While some European countries have almost completely switched their agriculture to water and cost saving drip irrigation, China is currently using this practice on only 5% of its irrigated lands. In many poor countries, less than 3% of the potential for renewable energy and drip irrigation has been exploited. These technologies are the markets of the future. And unlike many large dams, they will not produce regrets for future generations.

If a dam appears as the best option from a balanced assessment process, it should be built with precautions that reflect the lessons of past experience. If indeed poor countries still have a large hydropower potential that they can exploit, they can afford to be discerning. State-of-the-art environmental standards will ensure that the best projects are selected, and built in a way that avoids negative surprises in the future.

The Chinese government is pragmatic, and is quick to learn from mistakes – its own and those of others. It has ramped up environmental protection measures, and is promoting a rapid expansion of renewable energy and energy efficiency options. The government has stopped a few dam projects which violated laws and regulations, and decided to pay retroactive compensation to all the people who were displaced by reservoirs in the past.

Overseas, Chinese dam companies and financiers started out by building dams – such as the Merowe Dam in Sudan and several projects in Burma – without proper social and environmental standards. Some of these projects caused serious social, environmental and safety concerns, and tarnished the reputation of Chinese investors. China’s main dam builders and financiers are now strengthening their environmental guidelines. The Chinese government has also started to support investment in renewable energy projects such as solar and wind farms in Africa and other regions. And while Northern donors like to build new projects, let them fall into disrepair and then build new projects again, Chinese aid is good at maintaining and restoring the projects it has built in the past.

In too many cases, Chinese laws and guidelines are still disregarded in dam projects at home and abroad. It takes strong oversight and credible sanctions to ensure that the public interest in a balanced long-term development prevails over short-term financial interests and outright corruption. A strengthened role for civil society will help to recognize problems early and avoid costly mistakes. Strong environmental organizations will help to close the gap between laws and regulations and the realities on the ground. International Rivers is proud to work together with Chinese civil society and hydropower companies in closing this gap.   

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at