World Bank’s former senior water adviser praises China’s role in dam building

On China Dialogue, the English-Chinese dialogue platform on the environment, John Briscoe, a professor of environmental engineering at
Harvard University and the World Bank’s former senior water adviser, slams the World Bank’s reluctance to provide loans for infrastructure and “modern agriculture” since the 1990s and calls it “a faddish policy approach, constantly inventing new ‘flavours of the month'” adopted under the pressure of rich-country NGOs.

The bank’s lending for cheap, renewable hydropower, for example, fell by 90% over the course of the 1990s, while lending for agriculture has dropped by 75% over the past 25 years.

Briscoe identifies as the main culprit the International Development Association (IDA), which “has become the tail that wags the IBRD [International Bank for Reconstruction and Development] dog.” Indirectly, Briscoe identifies its “faddish policy approach” with the Clinton Democrats.

A silver lining to this dark cloud is that the MICs [middle-income countries] are now partially filling the gap left by the World Bank and others. In recent years, the World Bank has only financed two major dams in the developing world, but
China now finances over 200 such projects in Africa and Asia. This is a great service to the developing world. It would be even greater if China were to export not only its superb construction capabilities but also its world-leading capability in the sensitive area of resettlement. (To the surprise of many, the World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group and others have shown that China has by far the best record in the developing world
in resettling those who are relocated by large dams.)

 Briscoe ends by calling for a reform of the World Bank that includes

a major overhaul of the suffocating plethora of rules, or “safeguards”, which have been put in place over the last 20 years … dismantling of the groups of staff who live off the transaction costs imposed by each of these rules. … More broadly the MICs should use their new-found clout to force the World Bank culture to change from one in which managers
and staff are pre-occupied with sins of commission, which are punished severely, and sins of omission are ignored.

Responding to Briscoe, International Rivers director Peter Bosshard retorts that if, “after a balanced assessment process, a dam appears to be the best
option, it should be built with precautions that reflect the lessons of
past experience. If indeed poor countries still have a large hydropower
potential to exploit, then they can afford to be discerning.” He notes that the “Chinese government is pragmatic and quick to learn from mistakes – its
own and those of others” and argues for sustained engagement with Chinese companies and the Chinese government towards the end of better environmental practices.


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