China is the global leader in exporting dams. Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: Its state-run companies are building more dams overseas than all other international dam builders put together. Thirty-seven Chinese financial and corporate entities are involved in more than 100 major dam projects in the developing world. Some of these entities are very large and have multiple subsidiaries. For instance, Sinohydro Corporation — the world’s largest hydroelectric company — boasts 59 overseas branches. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

Both the profit motive and a diplomatic effort to showcase its engineering prowess drive China’s overseas dam-building efforts. China’s declared policy of “noninterference in domestic affairs” actually serves as a virtual license to pursue dam projects that flood lands and forcibly uproot people — including, as with Myitsone, ethnic minorities — in other countries. But it is doing the same at home by shifting its focus from dam-saturated internal rivers to the international rivers that originate in the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria.

China contends that its role as the global leader in exporting dams has created a “win-win” situation for host countries and its own companies. But evidence from a number of project sites shows that the dams are exacting a serious environmental toll on those hosts.

Problems with China’s Overseas Dam Projects

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: As a result, the overseas projects often serve to inflame anti-Chinese sentiment, reflected in grassroots protests at several sites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Moreover, by using a Chinese workforce to build dams and other projects abroad — a practice that runs counter to its own “localization” requirement, adopted in 2006 — China reinforces a perception that it is engaged in exploitative practices. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

As the world’s most dammed country, China is already the largest producer of hydropower globally, with a generating capacity of more than 170 gigawatts. Yet ambitious plans to boost its hydro-generating capacity significantly by damming international rivers have embroiled the country in water disputes with most neighbors, even North Korea.

More broadly, China’s dam-building passion has spawned two key developments. First, Chinese companies now dominate the global hydropower-equipment export market. Sinohydro alone, having eclipsed Western equipment suppliers like ABB, Alstom, General Electric, and Siemens, claims to control half the market.

Second, the state-run hydropower industry’s growing clout within China has led the government to campaign aggressively for overseas dam projects by offering low-interest loans to other governments. At home, it recently unveiled a mammoth new $635 billion investment program in water infrastructure over the next decade, more than a third of which will be channeled into building dams, reservoirs, and other supply structures.

Impact of Chinese Dams in China Outside of China

According to the New York Times: “So far China has been largely unresponsive to the concerns of its neighbors, among them India, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, Russia and Vietnam. Since 1997, China has declined to sign a United Nations water-sharing treaty that would govern the 13 major transnational rivers on its territory. “To fight for every drop of water or die” is how China’s former water resources minister, Wang Shucheng, once described [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 4, 2013]

Brahma Chellaney wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: With China now increasingly damming transnational rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Irtysh, Illy, and Amur, the new projects threaten to “export” the serious degradation haunting China’s internal rivers to those rivers. The time has come to exert concerted external pressure on China to rein in its dam frenzy and embrace international environmental standards. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post: Under pressure from environmentalists at home and crimped by new legislation, China’s dam-builders have in recent years also looked to rivers abroad. They are constructing about 300 dams overseas. Most of these will not help China meet its energy needs: They are too far away, in places such as Ethiopia and Sudan. Closer to home China started looking at hydropower ventures in Myanmar in the early 1990s.China’s consumption of electricity increased more than tenfold between 1980 and 2010. In 2000, with demand for power surging along China’s east coast, Beijing launched a policy known as “sending electricity from west to east,” pushing for new dams on rivers in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan, the Chinese province next to Burma. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, November 7, 2011]

Chinese Dams on the Upper Mekong

There are plans to build 100 dams in Sichuan and Yunnan in the Three Parallel Rivers area, where three great rivers—the Yangtze, Mekong, and the Salween — flow parallel to one another within a 55 mile band, divided by high mountain ridges. The plan calls for more than a dozen dams larger than the Grand Coulee dam and one that will be the tallest in the world. Even though the dams are in remote mountainous areas they are set to displace 1 million people.

China is currently involved in building large dams on the upper Mekong to provide electricity, control floods and provide water for irrigation. Some have been built. Some are being built. More than a dozen are in the planning stages. The $4 billion Xiaowan Dam is currently being built. When it is finished it will be the world’s tallest dam, over 300 meters (100 stories) high and create a reservoir 169 kilometers long. Only the Three Gorges dam will be larger.

China is planning eight Mekong dams totaling over 16,000 MW, of which three have been across the upper reaches of the river. Four are under construction, potentially impacting riverside communities in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Dams that have already been built include the $600 million, 30-story-high Dachaoshan Dam in Dachaoshan Gorge, which created a 88-kilometer-long reservoir that filled up in just five days; the 35-story-high Manwan Dam, 100 kilometers south of Dali in Yunnan, with 40 foot tunnels through the mountains and a 1500 megawatt electricity generating capacity; and the Jinghong Dam.

Chinese dams on the Mekong River from north to south (year completed or targeted for completion, people displaced: 1) Gonguaoqiao (2010, 4,600); 2) Xiaowan (2013, 32,700); 3) manwan (1996, 7,600); 4) Dachaoshan (2003, 6,000); 5) Nuozhadu (2017, 24,000); 6) Jinghong (2010, 2,300); 7) Ganlanba (unknown, 50); 8) Mengsong (unknown, 230). [Source: New York Times]

China’s Dams in Myanmar

China has built dams in Myanmar mainly to supply energy for China not Myanmar. In 2011, China’s frenzied dam-building hit a wall when the Myanmar government boldly decided to halt a controversial Chinese-led dam project. This helped to ease the path to the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to Myanmar in more than a half-century. [Source: Brahma Chellaney, Christian Science Monitor, December 2, 2011]

The now-stalled $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, located at the headwaters of Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, was designed to pump electricity exclusively into China’s power grid, despite the fact that Myanmar suffers daily power outages. The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of China’s State Council hailed Myitsone as a model overseas project serving Chinese interests. The 2011 Myanmar decision thus shocked China’s government, which had begun treating Burma as a reliable client state (one where it still has significant interests, including the ongoing construction of a multibillion-dollar oil and natural-gas pipeline).

Image Sources: Nolls China website ; CNTO; Xindua, ESWIN. Telegraph, Envirnonmental News; NASA, Nature Conservancy

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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