China has constructed numerous ports, bridges and other coastal projects throughout the developing world in recent years in what's been dubbed by Beijing the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" – part of President Xi Jinping's greater Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure.
But while some projects help developing economies increase their capacity for trade, there are environmental downsides to China's coastal infrastructure, according to an academic study published this week in the journal One Earth, with Africa among the most negatively affected regions and Caribbean Island nations also facing high risk to marine habitats.
The study, by researchers from Boston University Global Development Policy Center, University of California Santa Barbara, Colorado State University and the University of Queensland, looked at the risks from 114 Chinese-funded coastal development projects over a 10-year period until 2019. The projects studied were funded by either the China Development Bank or Export-Import Bank of China and totaled some $65 billion in financing. China is the biggest bilateral funder of coastal infrastructure overseas, surpassing Japan and multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank.
“‘The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road’ has enormous potential to propel economic prosperity … but there are growing concerns regarding the potential deleterious impacts of this initiative on the environment and local and indigenous communities," the study said.
For example, in "Angola and Mozambique, more than 2,000 [square kilometers] of marine habitats face high impact risks," the research found. However, just a few months ago, Chinese upgrades to a port in Angola were lauded by Chinese state media the Global Times, which said the project is designed to benefit the community in several ways including meeting "local demand for import and export of goods."
While infrastructure such as bridges and power plants can also threaten the environment, it is port developments that represent the greatest risks to marine systems, researchers found.
"Ports rank as the highest-risk sector for coastal construction, because of the many possible avenues for environmental and social impacts: beyond the noise, light, and habitat disruption from the construction itself, they also bring the potential for significant changes in local ecosystems through the introduction of invasive species who 'hitchhike' on incoming ships and the depletion of local fish stocks from new fishing fleets who may come to use the port," Rebecca Ray, senior researcher in global development policy at Boston University, told VOA.
African ports, such as those in Mauritania, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Angola, Mozambique and Djibouti, are prominent regional risk hotspots. The study found that as well as affecting marine life and biodiversity, such projects can negatively impact indigenous coastal communities.
This was particularly stark in West Africa, it said, where "seas surrounding coastal indigenous communities in Western and central Africa are disproportionately at risk, which could result in negative effects in seafood consumption and local livelihoods."
Ivory Coast, for example, has some of the greatest risks to their seas and also has some of the highest levels of seafood consumption.
Balancing environment with development
In Mauritania's capital, a Chinese-built port brought with it a fishing deal with a Chinese fleet, which then outdid local fishermen, Ray told VOA.
"In the case of the Nouakchott Friendship Port, small-scale fishers claim that over-fishing from Chinese fishing boats has not only damaged the local ecosystem but also their own ability to continue to make a living by fishing at small, sustainable scales," she said.
In recent years, China has been balancing its environmental commitments with its economic goals.
"We need to care for the ocean as we treasure our lives," Chinese President Xi Jinping said last year, state news agency Xinhua reported.
"Efforts will be made to develop 'blue partnerships' and expand cooperation with coastal countries in terms of marine environment protection, scientific research and maritime rescue," the article stated.
Xinhua also talked about China's vision for more maritime connectivity and trade, mentioning the Mauritanian port as an example of China's economic vision, saying China's aid "improved the handling capacity and alleviated cargo congestion and delays in the port, making it an important logistics node along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road."
In Southern Africa, researchers found that the renovation and expansion of the Beira Fishing Port in Mozambique by a Chinese engineering company presented one of the greatest risks within 10 kilometers of marine habitats of all the projects examined in the study.
"The impact of potential overfishing is why the Beira fishing port is ranked so high in risk among projects: it is the only port in the dataset developed explicitly for fishing purposes," Ray explained.
During the inauguration ceremony of the renovated port last year, then-Chinese Ambassador Su Jian as well Mozambique's president, Filipe Nyusi, said the port project would help with economic development, reported Xinhua.
"We believe that over the coming months we will continue to open more Chinese-funded projects," Nyusi said.
However, not all African leaders are so welcoming of Chinese ports. In Tanzania, late President John Magufuli pulled the plug on a Chinese-planned port in 2019, saying the Chinese demands surrounding the development had been "exploitative."
China's green BRI initiatives
The study in One Earth recommends that China mitigate marine risks in its BRI developments.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not reply to VOA's request for comment on this story. However, Beijing has become more environmentally conscious when handling infrastructure projects, including banning new coal-powered projects abroad.
In 2021, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued guidance for its Belt and Road Initiative partners to "[foster] economic, social, and environmental development in a balanced and integrated manner." The guidance also mentioned promoting "environment-friendly and resilient infrastructure through, inter alia, enhancing climate and environmental risk assessment on projects."
Early this year, Beijing announced new green finance guidelines for its banks to manage risks, including environmental concerns.