By Francis Wade
Chinese companies are ignoring human and environmental concerns as they plough ahead with destructive hydropower projects across Africa and Asia, activists warn, with particular concerns about their affect on Burma.
Peter Bosshard, policy director of the California-based International Rivers, on Wednesday described Chinese dam builders as “reckless”.
“There is still often a complete lack of transparency and consultation, particularly with civil society groups in the host countries,” he told Reuters during a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.
China’s energy demands are rising at nine percent each year; if this continues, by 2020 it will require twice as many dams, coal-fired power stations, nuclear plants and other power sources. It is also grappling with rapidly depleting natural resources, meaning the prospects of ‘out-sourcing’ the majority of its megaprojects are increasing.
One country that has felt the burden of this is Burma, where environmental regulations are non-existent and where public disquiet over energy projects is aggressively suppressed by the military.
“If such huge infrastructure projects go forward, the [Burmese] army takes over and occupies the villages,” Bosshard said.
“There’s no question that the indigenous populations are very unhappy with these projects which they see as an extension of military rule in Burma, and that this will lead to serious conflict.”
Burma is one of the main recipients of the $US8.5 billion Chinese companies have invested abroad this year already. Last year alone China poured nearly $US10 billion into the Burmese economy, its healthiest year on record by a considerable stretch.
The vast majority of China’s energy projects in Burma will go towards feeding its own swelling population, which has suffered from alarming levels of pollution in the past decade – likely another reason for Beijing looking to its neighbours to shoulder the burden.
In 2009 Burma was added to a special ‘watch list’ of resource-rich countries drawn up by Beijing’s Ministry of Land and Resources, and has hungrily tapped into the country’s vast hydropower and gas potential.
China is now behind more than 100 large dam projects in nearly 40 countries across the world – its heavy upstream damming of the Mekong River is seen as largely responsible for record low water levels last year in downstream nations.
Regardless, however, it is planning six more dams along the river, and has pumped significant capital into several projects mooted for Laos and Cambodia; overall, it is estimated that Chinese companies will be behind the development of 40 percent of hydropower projects along the Mekong, outside of China.