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China Mekong Dam Project Generates Growing Controversy

China Mekong Dam Project Generates Growing Controversy
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China has the greatest number of dams in the world, though its plan to construct a dam on the cross-border Mekong River is increasingly creating controversy. In 2011, the government in Burma, also known as Myanmar, halted the two countries' joint Myitsone dam project after protests at home. U.S.-based experts think more transparency from China can help ease the disputes.

China not only has built the world’s largest hydroelectric dam -- the Three Gorges Dam -- it also has the greatest number of dams in the world. Besides building dams in China, Chinese businesses are a top builder of dams abroad.

Chinese banks and companies have helped to build hundreds of dams in dozens of countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, according to figures from the group International Rivers.

Methodology questioned

Richard Cronin, the director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center, specializes in researching hydroelectric dams on the transnational Mekong River.

“Chinese companies are involved in four, possibly five, of the 11 mainstream dams, as well as lots of dams on tributaries," said Cronin. "So, China's role is a big factor in all infrastructure development, particularly in Laos and Cambodia. But it is also a particularly big factor in the development of these dams."

The methods being used to build the dams are increasingly coming under attack, however, because of the projects' environmental and social impacts. And China's plan to build a dam on the Mekong is causing particular concern.

Darrin Magee, an associate professor of environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith College, said, "I think one reason for the controversy is a lack of clear data. A clear understanding of how much these dams are going to impact flows downstream. Flows of water and flows of silt, basically.”

Lack of transparency cited

The Stimson Center’s Richard Cronin said China has no transparency because it does not disclose hydrology data, information Beijing views as a state secret. To further complicate matters, Cronin said government departments lack coordination and each dam is regarded as an independent project.

The most well-known Chinese-built dam in Southeast Asia is the Myitsone dam in Burma. Located on the Irrawaddy River, the $3.6 billion dam is a joint venture between the China Power Investment Corporation, Burma's Ministry of Electric Power, and a private company. Burmese President Thein Sein suspended the project in 2011, however, after domestic protests.

At a panel discussion, Sun Yun, a fellow at the Stimson Center, said the Myitsone dam project is a classic example of Chinese policy-making by participants who have different interests.

“China's central government, which is Beijing, local government, which is Yunnan province, and the business interests, China Power and Investment, prioritize different things,” she said.

She said Beijing hoped to maintain good relations with Burma, while the Yunnan provincial government wanted to use the project to become an energy hub for China’s southwest. As for the China’s Power and Investment Corporation, their main consideration was profit.