China Dams the World

This is the third installment of the author's series on how China chew its way through the natural resources of its Asian neighbors. Check out the other stories in this series:

Just last year in 2017 a group of local Indonesian and international scientists introduced the newest great ape to the world, the Tapanuli orangutan, or Pongo tapanuliensis. This sub-species of the Sumatran orangutan is found only in two forest blocks southwest of Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra in an area called Batang Toru. This rainforest is also home to species listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, such as the Sumatran tiger and the Helmeted Hornbill. There could even be a few Sumatran rhinoceros in there.

It would be difficult to imagine a more important ecosystem to preserve. Who would ever dream of building a high-wall hydroelectric dam on the main river of such an ecosystem, flooding a huge tropical canyon that is one of the main Tapanuli orangutan habitats in the Batang Toru ecosystem? Apparently, some big players had that very idea, and are moving forward with it. In the early stages, Goldman Sachs was on board to fund the project, but when the outcry over the orangutans became loud enough, Goldman backed out and defunded the project.

However, China’s Sinohydro had no such qualms about orangutans, endangered species, deforestation, or local and international outcry. Sinohydro, a company with a lot to answer for across the tropics for building controversial dams, stepped in to fund and build the dam. In fact, in an attempt to emphasize the importance of the project, which has backing from Beijing, Sinohydro proclaimed that the dam is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Orangutans, tigers, and rainforest be dammed!

Farther afield in Indonesia, a Chinese-backed dam on the Kayan River in Kalimantan will inundate part of the Heart of Borneo, while across the border in Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo Sinohyrdo contructed the Bakun Dam and other Chinese hydro companies are involved with other dams in that province to the detriment of indigenous people such as the forest-dwelling Penan, and also wildlife, including the Bornean orangutan and Helmeted Hornbills on Borneo.

As controversial as these projects are, they are actually par the course for Chinese hydroelectric companies. Hydrolancang International Energy Company is reportedly the prime candidate to build a massive 18km-long dam on the Mekong River in Cambodia at Sambor in Kratie province, a dam that, according to a leaked report, would for all practical purposes kill the Mekong. That millions of poor, rural Cambodians rely on fish from the Mekong for their protein—and that it’s essentially a free source of protein—mean nothing to Hydrolancang. The same company didn’t blink an eye when it came to submerging villages, schools, farms, fishing grounds, and ritual sites in nearby Stung Treng province in northeast Cambodia with the controversial Lower Sesan 2 dam on the Sesan River. Perhaps saddest of all is the fact that the majority of the power from the Sesan 2 Dam will be exported to Vietnam rather used locally.

Down in southwestern Cambodia, a Chinese dam on the Tatai River recently discharged a tidal wave of water during heavy rains and washed away a popular downriver floating ecotourism resort in the process. River monsters such as the Giant Mekong Catfish are becoming ever more scarce.

Sinohydro has essentially destroyed the 450-km Nam Ou River in northern Laos, home to 84 species of fish, 29 of which are endemic, with a series of seven large dams. River cruises have now been eliminated on this river, and virtually all of the power generated will be exported to China. Laos has made it clear that it doesn’t care about the biodiversity value of its rivers, an attitude that complements China’s almost systematic and almost robotic destruction of any and all free-flowing rivers in Southeast Asia that it deems damable. And it is worth noting that Laos is happy to push ahead with new dams despite the disastrous collapse of a dam in Attapeu province this summer.

Chinese engineers want to dynamite troublesome rapids in Thailand’s stretch of the Mekong so that their patrol boats can scour the river more easily, yet those very rapids are the breeding ground for many species of fish that local people depend on. Meanwhile, a dam on China’s stretch of the Red River caused havoc in Vietnam when Chinese authorities discharged a massive amount of water during a storm.

Chinese companies are involved in numerous hydroelectric projects in Myanmar, many of them in ethnically, militarily, and biologically sensitive areas. The enormous Myistone Dam in the north has been cancelled for now, but there is no telling what will happen in the future. The Salween River—called the Nu River in Yunnan province—is to date one of the few undammed rivers in China, spared for ecological and humanitarian concerns by former Premier Wen Jiabao, yet China wants to build large dams on the Salween in Myanmar. More Chinese dams on lesser-known rivers in Myanmar are either on the drawing board or under construction.

China has built—and is in the process of building—so many dams on the Mekong River that the biodiverse and once-mighty waterway will soon be a series of stagnant pools. Many of Yunnan province’s valleys have been drowned forever, a photographer’s journey from the mouth of Mekong in Vietnam to its source in Tibet found, and some are beginning to wonder if Beijing isn’t using its Mekong dams as something akin to a military threat against its neighbors, threatening to withhold water and spur famine if they don’t fall in line with China’s policies.

There are thousands of dams in China, and many of these rivers have their source in Tibet, Xingjiang, and other regions and flow into neighboring countries. Some commentators, seeing dams go up on these rivers and plans to actually divert the water back into China rather than letting it flow naturally to its neighbors, are referring to China as a “water hegemon.”

China’s dams on the Brahmaptura River are a classic case in point. The largest dam is going up on the spectacular “bend” where the Brahmaputra (called the Yarlung in Tibet) changes direction and flows south into India and Bangladesh. The river is one of the main lifelines into eastern India and Bangladesh. The Zangmu Dam, as it’s called, would disrupt critical water flows to its southern neighbors (and it’s worth noting that China and India only became neighbors in 1949 when Mao Zedong launched a military invasion of Tibet, which was then an independent nation—was taking control of vital water sources one of the main goals? Likely). But not only will the river flow become erratic—it could permanently drop by a substantial amount if the water in Tibet is diverted to other areas of China, which is what China is very likely to do.

China’s Three Gorges Corporation is likely to spearhead construction on the world’s largest dam on the Congo River in DR Congo. The eponymous corporation destroyed what was once China’s most spectacular gorge—the Three Gorges in central China, which was nothing short of an environmental catastrophe. China is involved in the construction of numerous dams across the African continent, and these dams are not only exorbitantly expensive, as in the case of a US$5.8 billion dam in Nigeria, but almost all of the rivers that they block are key transportation arteries and vital fisheries for local populations.

Many are also in biologically unique zones and their construction floods wildlife habitats, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries and displace the local people who live in these areas. And as Asia Sentinel noted in September, Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa almost always spur an uptick in the bush meat trade and overall environmental degradation.

China is involved in building dams in the Balkans, Latin America, the Philippines, Tajikistan (another “world’s tallest”), Nepal, Argentina, Fiji, and many other places. No river is too small, no country to obscure, no project too unviable—especially if it deemed part of the BRI. There is, moreover, a growing concern about the environmental impact of the BRI on host countries.

In fact, most mega-dams are economically unviable, and rather than function as the “green” sources of power that their advocates proclaim them to be, many – especially tropical dams –are in fact, huge sources of CO2 emissions and as such, disasters for the planet. But none of this information slows down aggressive Chinese companies such as Sinohydro, Hydrolancang, and others.

With virtually all of China’s rivers dammed numerous times and little work left to do in China itself, these companies seem to have a mandate to spread out across the world and dam every wild river that remains. It’s disturbing to think that the corporate executives of Chinese hydroelectric companies—with the likely backing of Beijing—pore over maps of the great rivers of the world, and then set in motion plans to contact governments, grease palms if necessary, and then set about destroying the planet’s wild rivers—and always in the name of “progress” and “development,” as if a dam alone ever lifted a country out of poverty.

Back in the early 20th Century the great British plant collector Frank Kingdon-Ward, while trekking along the Yunnan-Burmese border, remarked that when China was weak she could be kind, but when she was strong she was the worst neighbor imaginable. Today this holds true not just for China’s actual neighbors like India, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, but, in the global village of the 21st Century, the entire planet. And she must be checked and held to account for her rapacious activities, or else planetary-wide environmental degradation will follow at a highly accelerated pace.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator of Habitat ID, and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.