News / Asia

Environmentalists Call for Transparency in Chinese Dam Projects

A general view shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river in Yichang in central China's Hubei province (file photo)
A general view shows the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze river in Yichang in central China's Hubei province (file photo)

Environmentalists say China needs to be more transparent as it rapidly expands its domestic and international hydropower program.  The call for openness, made Tuesday by two influential NGOs, comes amid criticism of China's controversial dam-building projects on rivers flowing from the Himalayan region.

Southeast Asian countries are not the only nations that fear an ever thirsty China could trigger natural disasters, hurt the environment, ignore human rights and divert water supplies.

China's accelerating program of damming every major river flowing from the Tibetan plateau has sparked fears in towns and Asian capitals from Pakistan to Vietnam.

But Chinese banks and hydropower construction companies are also causing concern in other parts of the world, such as Africa, where they are involved in projects for profit.

Peter Bosshard, policy director of the environment NGO, International Rivers, says while big Chinese investment banks such as ICBC claim to be environmentally and socially responsible, smaller Chinese enterprises are more reckless.

"We have seen movement from the biggest actors, but smaller companies, which can be very big state-owned enterprises in their own right or private companies, tend to hide between the market leaders."

Though China is not alone in disrupting Himalayan water flows, suspicions are heightened by Beijing's lack of transparency and refusal to share most hydrological and other data.

Moreover, China has in the last decade come to dominate the global hydro power sector. Another dam causing widespread alarm is the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia, which is being funded by China's ICBC bank.

Environmentalists say if completed, the dam will devastate ecosystems and livelihoods of indigenous people in the lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia and Lake Turkana in neighboring Kenya.

Bosshard said other international banks refused to fund the dam.

"These projects still go ahead and the Chinese companies do not respond to civil society concerns. There is still a culture with very little transparency and consultation," explained Bosshard. "We saw a new guideline on anti-corruption from the State Council last December when they say sunshine is the best antiseptic, and transparency offers the best supervision of power. But in our experience in such projects, there is still often a complete lack of transparency and consultation, particularly with civil society groups in the hosts countries, which need this access most."

Johan Frijns works for the NGO Bank Track, which scrutinizes international investments by the world's big banks.

He also called on Chinese investment banks to open up their hydropower interests to the public.

"We call on Chinese banks to enter into a dialogue with our counterparts here in China, with international networks, with NGOs working on the environment, working on human rights and working on a great many issues, as all the other banks in the world have done so far," Frijns said.

It is in Southeast Asia where China's thirst for water and environmental footprint is most keenly felt.

Local communities and environmentalists are worried the dams will trigger natural disasters, degrade fragile ecologies such as fish supplies, and divert vital water supplies in the world's most heavily populated and thirstiest region.

On the eight great Tibetan rivers alone, almost 20 dams have been built or are under construction while some 40 more are planned or proposed.

China strenuously denies it is irresponsible in its dam building.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei says Beijing always considers downstream countries when choosing dam projects and would never harm their interests.

He says China pays great attention to the impact these projects might have on resources, the environment and ecosystems, and takes the concerns of downstream countries into consideration.

He says China is a responsible upstream country and will never harm the interests of downstream countries.

A few analysts and environmental advocates speak of water as a future trigger for war or diplomatic strong-arming. Bosshard said such a threat is hypothetical and a last-resort "nuclear" option for Beijing. But he said once complete, China can use its dams in any way it chooses.

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