Daniel Bardsley (Foreign Correspondent)
The National (UAE), Apr 22, 2011
BEIJING // The building of the Gilgel Gibe III dam on the Omo River in
Ethiopia, upstream from Lake Turkana, will do much more than affect the
water flow, an African environmentalist said as she brought her message
to China this week.
With flow into the lake affected by the partly Chinese-funded dam,
rising salinity will make the water undrinkable and kill the fish
indigenous people rely upon for food, fears Ikal Angelei, director of
the Kenyan group, Friends of Lake Turkana.
"The resources are already strained enough. Any further strain would
cause deaths and conflict," said Ms Angelei, one of three campaigners
who spoke to journalists in Beijing this week to raise concerns over the
environmental and human cost of some of the many dam projects in the
developing world being financed or built by Chinese interests.
According to the US-based International Rivers, Chinese companies have
signed contracts or memoranda of understanding for at least 250 dam
projects in 68 countries, and the state-owned Sinohydro claims to have
more than half the global market for hydropower projects.
China's dominance in hydropower projects is just part of a wider
expansion of the activities of Chinese companies in the developing
world, particularly Africa, where access to natural resources is often
given in return for the building of infrastructure.
The Gilgel Gibe III dam project, which is costing US$2.1 billion (Dh7.7
billion), has proved controversial enough that the World Bank and the
European Investment Bank, among others, are not providing funding.
Instead, a Chinese bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China,
the world's largest bank by market capitalisation, has helped the
multibillion-dollar project get off the ground by underwriting the work
of the Chinese contractor Dongfang Electric Corporation.
"We urge ICBC to reconsider its position. They're putting this money
where everybody else has walked away from the project," added Ms Angelei.
"Because of the impact it will have on the communities, they will be
indirectly starting a war in this part of Africa."
While acknowledging some of China's overseas development projects can
"bring a lot of benefits for host countries", Peter Bosshard, policy
director for International Rivers, said other schemes were carried out
without environmental impact assessments or involved "serious human
"There is often a lack of transparency and consultations, particularly
with civil society groups and host countries," he said.
Controversy over China's overseas dam building comes at a time of
heightened concern regarding hydropower projects within the country's
In particular, dam-building on rivers such as the Mekong that originate
in the Tibetan plateau has led to worries in countries downstream that
water flows will be disrupted and the risk of natural disasters increased.
Other Asian countries, too, have angered neighbours with their
hydropower schemes. This week Laos postponed the go-ahead for a dam on
the lower Mekong because of opposition.
Yet China's overseas hydropower schemes remain a key focus for
controversy not least because there are so many of them.
There have been cases where a Chinese bank has "taken up a loan that
nobody else would touch", according to Johan Frijns, co-ordinator for
the Dutch-based pressure group Bank Track.
Some Chinese banks, he said, were making "a lot of effort to [promote]
sustainability" within their home country, yet overseas their activities
sometimes led to "a really disappointing situation".
"We call upon Chinese banks to apply the policies that are routinely
applied in China when they are investing abroad," he said.
"Chinese banks [should] make sure the clients they serve adopt standards
of environmental protection and human rights."
Although some Chinese companies have agreed to follow Chinese laws when
working overseas, said International Rivers' Dr Bosshard, many companies
felt social responsibility was not their concern, especially if they
were not the main contractor on a project. Campaigners say they often
struggle to get a response when their concerns are raised. Some
opposition to Chinese dam-building overseas was because observers were
"not accustomed to the rise of China", according to Zhang Haibin, an
associate professor in Peking University's Centre for International and
Strategic Studies whose main research interest is international
"They are unable to adapt to the new phenomenon - the rise of China.
They're doubtful or they're concerned or they're nervous," Dr Zhang said
Chinese companies are launching projects in Latin America or Africa at
the initiative of these nations' governments, he added.
"I meet delegates of these countries and they say, 'You're very much
welcome because you're helping us to fight against climate change by
building these dams,'" he said.
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