A New "China Syndrome"

by Lori Pottinger
Saturday, September 1, 2007

China is home to thousands of dams, including what is probably the world’s most notorious, the Three Gorges Dam. This project’s gigantism is the root of some of its worst problems. The massive project set records for number of people displaced (at least one million), number of cities and towns drowned (13 cities, 140 towns, 1,350 villages), and length of reservoir (more than 400 miles). Now, its record-breaking environmental impacts are beginning to fester. The Wall Street Journal reports, “a year after completion, the project has new problems -- including landslides, water pollution and suggestions that the dam could contribute to the very flooding it was built to prevent.” A top official said “the problems are all more serious than we expected."

In an article on August 29, the Journal reported that the massive weight of water behind the dam is eroding the Yangtze River's shores, causing landslides. The reservoir is polluted from raw sewage runoff and the submergence of so much industrialized land. By stopping silt from moving downstream, the dam has dramatically altered the river’s estuary and fisheries it supports. Sea water is now coming further inland. Because the silt-free waters downstream of the dam flow faster now, flood control structures have been damaged.

Three Gorges is not alone in its litany of seemingly intractable problems -- problems that have the potential to outweigh the benefits. According to the official Xinhua news agency, more than one-third of China’s 85,000 or so reservoirs have "serious" structural problems. A deputy minister of water resources recently called China's reservoirs "time bombs" that threaten the lives and property of those downstream, the Journal reports. In addition, China’s dams and diversions have so depleted many major rivers of water that they have either become slow-moving cesspools or dry up for part of their course, adding to a nationwide water crisis that will only worsen with global warming.

Chinese officials aren’t talking about the troubling record of large dams with their own citizens, much less with foreign governments to whom they are selling their dam-building experience and services. As this issue reveals, China is today building dams in dozens of countries around the world, many of which have poor or nonexistent environmental and social protections for such projects, and in some cases, no political space to speak out nor media to keep an eye on problem projects. Chinese firms and lending agencies are involved in projects that can result in further human rights abuses in countries such as Sudan and Burma, and do serious harm to rivers such as the Mekong and the Zambezi. The cumulative social and environmental impacts of its worldwide dam-building could outweigh the benefits these projects are intended to bring.

While China's internal standards for environmental assessment, access to information and resettlement have been improving in recent years, the nation's dam-builders may not feel compelled to adhere to these standards on dam projects elsewhere. China is not alone – northern dam-building nations have set aside their own high standards for mitigation, public disclosure and environmental analysis when it comes to building dams in the global south.

s China continues to reach out to poor nations with development assistance, its global record on large dams could grow into a public relations disaster that threatens its reputation and the good will it has built in many places. To help repair the damage, China (and other dam-building nations exporting their expertise) must step back from the worst projects, and take steps to ensure that those dams that are built are not doing more harm than good.China also has an obligation to protect human rights and the environment under many international conventions which it has signed and ratified.

China can offer expertise and services that are better suited to the needs of poor societies than large dams. China's central planning expertise is well-suited to assisting national agencies with comprehensive needs and options assessments, improving cumulative-impacts analysis for rivers with multiple dams, and finding ways to improving the efficiency of existing dams before building new ones. Its success in building poverty-busting microhydro projects, biogas digesters, clean stoves and rainwater harvesting structures could be a better fit for the problems found in many of the places where large dams are being prioritized. Starting with these steps, China could become a true partner in solving some of the developing world's most intractable problems.