2 Mar 2008

China Exports Dams

This story was in the WSJ in December.
Home to almost half of the world's 45,000 biggest dams, China has embarked on a push to export its hydropower know-how to developing countries -- even as it contends with environmental damage and social upheaval at home from the massive Three Gorges Dam.

Many other countries and international organizations have begun to shy away from dam building. But Chinese companies and banks are now involved in billions of dollars worth of deals to construct at least 47 major dams in 27 countries, including Sudan and Myanmar, nations criticized for human-rights abuses and poor environmental track records.


China and other hydropower advocates such as the International Commission on Large Dams, a trade group, say building big dams can raise living standards in the poorest parts of the world. Africa has only developed about 8% of its hydropower potential, according to the commission.

"We don’t want to be misunderstood," Li Ruogu, head of the Export-Import Bank of China, said in an interview. "We want people to understand we are not hurting the environment. We are helping nations to develop.
I have written on the problems with big dams before, but this story is scary for two reasons: Dams once built (paid for or not) are hard to remove. That's a real problem if the dam turns out to be an ecological disaster. Second, China is subsidizing construction of dams in many countries run by thugs and dictators. That means the dams will be too cheap and the economic/ social/ environmental analysis will be weak. (The story mentions how some of China's clients just kill anti-dam protesters.)

Dams can be a good thing, but they are even less necessary (for hydropower) now that better technology allows in-stream power generation. It's sad to see China pushing yesterday's technology on tomorrow's people.

Bottom Line: China's entry into the dam business promises a lot of bad dams. Too bad for the poor people who will be displaced, in debt and suffering from bad water management that results. Too bad for the Earth. Good for corrupt politicians, Chinese workers and bosses. Good for the commodities traders who will pay below-market prices for the oil and minerals that the Chinese are getting in exchange for dams.

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