Alert, But Not Alarmed at China's Second Tier Dam Builders

Grace Mang

contemplating vowel pronunciation

It was just a little under a year ago that I joined International Rivers' China program, so it seems timely that this post reflect on one of the biggest revelations of the year past. But lets keep this professional and I'll spare you stories such as discovering that on moving to the United States from Australia I am unable to pronounce my name (Grace). Australians have a tendency to swallow their vowels.

First up, I've realized working in environmental advocacy in China is by no means an easy feat. I've often found myself experimenting with different approaches, spending what seems like days framing a message so that it is powerful but not offensive for Chinese actors. Oh and did I mention the layers of sensitivities? For these reasons and others, our China program has largely focused on the largest global dam builder the Chinese state owned Sinohydro Corporation, which has locked up around 50% of the international dam market. And until recently we had only limited knowledge about the other contractors and companies that lay beyond Sinohydro's market dominance.

For the past six months I have spent a lot of time researching what our team called China's second tier dam builders. The program was motivated to do so by the fact that we wanted to scale up our policy dialogue work, particularly frightened by the fact that these second tier companies were aggressively pursuing international dam building opportunities. Over the past six months headlines such as "Three Gorges ready to invest $15 billion (in hydropower development) in Pakistan" along with news that China Guodian and China Huaneng, some of China's biggest electricity generators, will fund a feasibility study for a 3,300 MW dam on the mainstream of the Mekong has certainly confirmed that work is timely and much needed.

By this stage, I was not only alert but also alarmed. While market share of these global dam builders is nowhere near that of Sinohydro's nor is there any sign that Sinohydro's dominance is waning – I am alarmed because all companies lack environmental and social policies.

Unlike western large multinational companies, their international exposure has occurred over a very short period, in as little as 5 years. As such, environmental and social safeguard policy development has not followed traditional trajectories or sometimes even any logical progression. Rather, development has been haphazard and in some cases verging, at times, on the side of clumsy.

For example, some Chinese companies adopted the UN Global Compact (China Datang and China Power Investment) and helped to develop industry guidelines such as the CSR guidelines of the Chinese International Contractors Association (Gezhouba). Others have launched themselves into philanthropy, paying for medicines and school supplies for the local communities, but have yet to commit to any standards such as observing China's international commitments or ensuring that local laws and regulations are complied with.

The preliminary research results have formed the foundations for new campaign pages on Chinese dam builders. I hope you enjoy them in an "alert but not alarmed" state.