China's Dam Builders to the World

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Originally published in Asia Sentinel

Mytsone Dam in Burma is just one of hundreds in a dam-building spree

Confirmation that construction will continue on the Mytsone dam on the Irrawaddy River spotlights the vast dam-building capability of Chinese engineers, who are involved in building at least 251 dams in 68 countries across the world, according to the NGO International Rivers.

In July, the Burma Rivers Network, which opposes the Mytsone dam, released a 945-page environmental impact study opposing the dam that was done by the China Power Investment Corp. itself, the Chinese state-owned entity that is building the structure. Finished in late 2009, the assessment has never been made public, the NGO said. It was conducted by a team of 80 Burmese and Chinese scientists

Nonetheless, Burma's Minister of Electric Power-1, Zaw Min, told reporters at a press briefing in the capital of Naypyidaw that the Myitsone project will be finished within eight years "and I will answer ‘No' to the question of the environmental groups who asked, ‘Will the project be stopped? We hired a third party for the impact assessments and we paid US $1.25 million for this. As we have done well with the impact assessment, I will say that we will never stop the project before finishing."

The dam has been under preparation since 2005. Located 1.5 kilometers below where the Mali and N'Mai Rivers join to form the Irrawaddy in Kachin state, it is expected to produce 3,600 to 6,000 megawatts of power. It is the largest of seven dams the Chinese have proposed on the Irrawaddy and is expected to inundate more than 750 sq km, according to the International Rivers NGO, which seeks to protect rivers and defend the rights of those who live on their banks.

Large dams lose favor

Large dams have increasingly lost favor across the globe everywhere but in China, many of whose leaders are engineers. The biggest, the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China, has privately been acknowledged as an environmental and social disaster by top officials in the Communist Party. In May, party officials warned of impending disaster if preventive measures aren't taken to attempt to ameliorate problems including ecological deterioration, erosion and landslides on steep hills around the dam, algae blooms downstream, deteriorating aquatic life and silting of the dam itself. Hundreds of thousands more people may have to be moved away from the area around the dam, in addition to the 1.3 million who have already been displaced by the dam, officials said privately. However, the dam produces electricity equivalent to that produced by 500 coal-fired generation plants.

The World Bank, traditionally the world's biggest source of funds for dam construction, has pulled back on funding although it hasn't stopped altogether, to the dismay of environmentalists. According to an analysis by the bank's Internal Evaluation Group, it is now funding dams at about half the level of the 1970s and 1980s.

"At first, large dams were simply regarded as engineering structures-that is, in terms of their usefulness for generating electric power and improving the management of water," the internal analysis found. "In the 1960s, cost/benefit analysis became accepted as the standard criterion for the justification of large dams, and the World Bank pioneered the modeling of river basins and new methods of economic analysis of multipurpose projects in developing countries.

However, social and environmental impacts emerged as fundamental concerns. The bank has responded by adopting guidelines to integrate social and environmental concerns into the analysis of proposed projects and to seek to avoid or mitigate the adverse consequences of large dams, according to the report.

Those guidelines apparently are not regarded as essential by Chinese officials. The country, according to a report by David Biello, an associate editor at Scientific American, "is engaged in a frenzy of building that has left it with more dams – 26,000 at last count -than any other nation in the world." In its continuing search for energy – especially energy that doesn't produce greenhouse gases — to power its rapidly expanding economy, the government plans to almost double its hydropower capacity to 380,000 MW by 2020

Across Southeast Asia, China is playing an integral role in funding and building dams on the Mekong River, the Irrawaddy and many other rivers. Southeast Asian dams include the Kamchay Dam in Cambodia and the Tasang Dam, also in Burma. Major development projects have already been completed on the Mekong, with more underway including two dams, completed at Manwan in 1993 and Dachaoshan in 2003. At least four more are in planning.

The Chinese government is building or planning to build as many as 12 large dams on the Jinsha River, whose headwaters are on the highlands of the Tibetan Plateau and which passes through Yunan and Sichuan Provinces before becoming the Yangtze. More than 300,000 people will be displaced, numerous cultural sites will be inundated and river ecosystems irretrievably altered, Biello writes.

Because China's dams are upstream from the countries of Southeast Asia, according to International Rivers, when they affect the seasonal fluctuations in water volume, the downstream countries feel the effect of reduced flows and fish stocks most acutely. It is feared that in addition to reducing the river volumes, the dams will prevent nutrient-rich sediment from flowing, which would cause serious harm to agriculture and fishing downstream.

"Among the areas in greatest danger is the Tonle Sap river-and-lake system in Cambodia, which is the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. Because this area is home to more than 400 species of fish, as well as many species of mammals and reptiles, it is a veritable hotspot of biodiversity that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere in 1997," the NGO argues.

The World Bank continues to argue that not all dams are bad dams. A review of 50 projects by the bank's internal evaluation group said they "have made major contributions to economic development. They have created an installed power generation capacity of 39,000 MW and they replace the equivalent of 51 million tons of fuel in electric energy production annually. They control floods and provide water for urban populations and for industrial development. They have extended irrigated areas by about 1.8 million hectares and improved irrigation for another 1.8 million hectares, substantially increasing cropping intensity and yields of major food crops."

Irrigation from the Tarvela and Mangla dams in Pakistan, for instance, has made it possible to grow the equivalent of two wheat crops a year on 800,000 hectares of land, adding direct benefits of as much as US$260 million annually to the region.

That is hardly comfort to the people of Burma. The Myitsone dam is expected to create a reservoir the size of New York City in what is now pristine rainforest and displace 10,000 people, mostly from the Kachin ethnic group, critics argue. The dam will also submerge historical churches, temples, and cultural heritage sites that are central to Kachin identity and history, they argue.

"There are a few bad things, such as there will be no place for the biodiversity and the people will be displaced because of the reservoirs, etc," said Zaw Min, the electric power minister. But we have to compare this with the national benefits which we will get from the project. After we reduce those bad things, the project will definitely affect positively the 50-60 million people of the country."

With reporting from The Irrawaddy