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

May 28, 2010

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.



International Crisis Group’s new report on China-Burma relations

September 19, 2009

Following the conquest of Kokang by Burmese government troops and the reported flight of tens of thousands of refugees to China (described as Chinese businessmen in Chinese media; see earlier entry), the International Crisis Group has published a new report entitled China’s Myanmar Dilemma. The report suggests that there is a conflict of interest between Peking, which supports the Burmese government, and the Yunnan provincial government, whose primary interests lie in maximizing profits from border trade and which hence prefers to deal with the so-called “ceasefire armies” and keep the Burmese government at arm’s length. Many Burmese border towns rely on China for electricity, water, and telecommunications, which of course also provides China a powerful weapon: thus, after a series of abductions of gamblers in early 2009, the Yunnan government cut off utilities to the casino town of Maijayang to pressure the local authorities to shut down the casino. The closest relations are maintained with the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army: in March, a Yunnan Province official participated in the 20th century celebrations of the UWSA’s victory over the Communist Party of Burma (!), and its political leader, Bao You-Xiang, epxressed its thanks to China for its support. At the end of last year, both Kachin and Wa leaders wrote a letter to Hu Jintao appealing for investment and aid.

The report also details Chinese involvement in hydropower projects (at least 63, including the Tasang Dam on the Salween, which is to be the largest dam in Southeast Asia) and mining (the latest and largest project, the Tagaung Taung nickel mine, was approved in 2008 with an investment of $800 million). Official Burmese figures say that 99% of the foreign investment in 2008, or about $900 million, came from China.

While the authors of the report seem to have had privileged access to officials in China, parts of it — particularly those describing on-the-ground sentiments — appear to be based on flimsy evidence. Thus, in reporting on anti-Chinese sentiments in northern Burma, statements like “Burmese feel that they are being pushed out” and “It has been estimated that 60 per cent of Myanmar’s economy is in Chinese hands” are based on a single interview.

It is tempting to see the “special zones” in Northern Burma as a return to the “overlapping sovereignty” of precolonial times when many of the principalities in the region paid tribute to China but were under the loose military control of Burma. What continues to interest me is the role and conceptualisation of Chinese ethnicity in these borderlands today. Do people like Bao You-Xiang see themselves as Chinese, Wa, or both? And how are they seen by others?

Shan organisation reports fighting around dam site in Burma

September 2, 2009

According to 1 September press release by the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, disseminated on the International Rivers mailing list,

Shan activists are calling on China to immediately halt all investment in dams on the Salween River following the recent heavy fighting between the Burmese military regime and the Kokang ceasefire army near the site of the Upper Salween Dam planned by Chinese companies in northern Shan State.

Heavy clashes have taken place just east of the town of Kunlong, about 15 kms from the planned dam site. Fighting broke out on August 27, 2009, after the regime deployed thousands of troops to seize control of the Kokang territory, shattering the 20-year ceasefire and causing over 30,000 refugees to flee to China. Kokang forces have sought to repel the Burma Army troops.

Plans to build the Upper Salween Dam, also known as the Kunlong Dam, were announced in April 2007 by two Chinese companies, Hanergy Holding Group (formerly Farsighted Investment Group) and Gold Water Resources Company. Since then a team of Chinese and Burmese technicians have been conducting feasibility studies for the 2,400 MW dam, 25 kms from the Chinese border.

The Kunlong Dam is one of five mega dams being planned on the Salween in Burma by the SPDC and Chinese and Thai companies, to produce electricity to be sold to China and Thailand. The Shan Sapawa Environmental Organisation, together with the Salween Watch coalition of environmental groups from Thailand and Burma, has been monitoring the controversial dam plans for ten years and advocating for their immediate halt.

“The renewed fighting and the flood of refugees into Yunnan should be a wake-up call to China about the risks of investing in Burma,” said Sapawa spokesperson Sai Khur Hseng.   “Not only is there no free and informed consent to these dam projects, but they are being built over the dead bodies of our people.”

The other mega dam being planned in Shan State is the giant 7,110 MW Ta Sang dam, 100 km from the Thai border. In early August, the regime renewed a scorched earth campaign in townships close to the Ta Sang dam site, torturing and killing civilians and driving 10,000 villagers from their homes.

In an earlier post, I noted the cooperation (or perhaps sometimes multiple identities) between environmental and ethnic organisations in northern Burma, how they represent a certain potential form of sovereignty in that highly contested terrain, and how the ethnic Chinese enclaves (like Kokang) represent another, more real form. What is particularly interesting in this news release is the claim that 30,000 refugees have fled the fighting to China. China is not a state that officially allows refugee flows across its border, so if this is true it raises additional questions about the nature of sovereignty and border in Kokang and the other “special zones.” Or are these people who possess Chinese citizenship?

Ghana’s vice president asks China to solve Bui labour dispute

January 18, 2009

Construction on the Bui dam project by Sinohydro only started late last year despite protests by environmentalists (see previous post on Ghana and this article). But according to a 16 January article in the Ghanaian newspaper The Daily Guide (Chinese translation here), the vice president, John Mahama, has already asked China to help solve a labour dispute that was “not conducive for the completion of the project on schedule. He “also mentioned the concerns of local businessmen about the influx of Chinese goods on the local market at the expense of local ones.” But he called on China to increase its engagement with Ghana:

He commended the trade relationship between the two countries with particular reference to the fact that Ghanaians continue to patronize more Chinese products, but lamented that there was no strong reciprocal overtures from the Chinese people. (…)

He commended the Chinese government for supporting the construction of some important projects like the National Theatre which was constructed and presented to the government of Ghana free of charge, Afife Rice project in the Volta Region, the Bui Dam, and for supporting the Ofankor Nsawam road with $30 million.

Mr. Mahama appealed to the Chinese government to help make the Accra-Kumasi highway a dual carriage.

In his response, the Chinese ambassador reminded Ghanaians that the Chinese government was also “putting up” three schools in the country.

Over 1,000 Chinese workers in Burma’s Chibwe hydropower project

January 18, 2009

International Rivers has picked up this article, written by KNG and dated 13 January, from the Kachin News website.

To expedite the hydropower project in N’Mai River at Chibwe city in
Burma’s northern Kachin state, about 1,000 Chinese workers have been inducted in the project site since late December, 2008, said local sources. (…) The Chinese workers are employed by China’s
China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) and they are working together with about 300 Burmese workers of the Burma-Asia World Company which is owned by Burma’s former drug king Lo Hsing Han, residents of Chibwe said. (…)

Mr. Awng Wa, an anti-dam activist and chairman of Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) based on the Sino-Burma border told KNG today, “Chinese companies working under CPI in Chibwe hydropower project are also taking out valuable minerals from the project areas to China while working for the hydropower project.” (…)

Owners of restaurants in Chibwe are also seriously suffering and are
about to close their shops because the workers in Asia World Company eat daily at their restaurants without paying for the past six months to a year.  On the other hand, owners of house construction stores have to provide the materials demanded by the company without getting payment for a long time.

The shop owners are unable to complain to the CPI and Asia World
Company because they are strongly backed by the Burmese ruling junta, added local residents.

Chibwe hydropower project is one of a total seven hydropower projects in Mali and N’Mai Rivers in Kachin state which is being built by the CPI and Asia World Company of the junta since 2006.  The Chibwe hydropower project will generate a total of 2,000 MW of electricity.

According to sources from the two companies, the Chibwe hydropower project is being implemented under a 20-year project.

What surprised me about this article is that there are anti-dam groups operating on the Burma-China border. What, NGOs in Burma? I have imagined that border region to be ultramilitarized and ultrapoor, not the sort of place you’d have lots of space for dissidence or “civil society” (though Chinese merchants in Boten, who had come over from there, say that the environment was more “modern” than in Laos). So I am very curious about this “anti-dam group.” This would be a great place to check what a people who have (or so it is said in Western accounts) been pressganged and terrorised by various armies and drug lords for long actually think about development imported from China. This article certainly suggests that military-style requisitioning is still in fashion, to the benefit of the Chinese managers now.  

Another point to note is that Lo Hsing Han, by the sound of his name, is probably Chinese; but is he a former KMT or a former Red Guard/BCP? Guo Xiaolin in her work on Burma-China relations (see Bibliography, Working Paper 1) does point out that a number of former Red Guards went over the border to aid the Burmese Communist Party and then became major drug players.

Elections, oil and a Chinese dam in Ghana

January 17, 2009

African democracy often seems like an oxymoron. We hear so much in the western press about corruption, failed states, dictatorships, ethnic violence, and disputed elections that many would be surprised to find that anything like ‘normal’ politics occurs in Africa.  But in Ghana there has just been a very close presidential election that saw the opposition candidate win by the tiniest of margins. On 7th January Professor John Atta Mills was sworn in as President, representing the National Democratic Congress (NDC) who displaced the New Patriotic Party (NPP) that had governed for two terms. The NDC conspicuously borrowed from President-Elect Obama’s campaign by arguing that ‘A Change We Need’ although in terms of economic policy there is not a lot to tell between the two main parties.


Although the credit crunch and global recession have affected many developing countries in terms of demand for their commodities and availability of credit, Ghana already had a huge budget deficit compared to the size of its economy. So, like all governments, it is concerned with what will drive the country’s economy. Last year, after much speculation, oil was discovered in the west of the country, mainly offshore, but with the possibility of land-based reserves. For a country dependent on oil imports and a massively over-stretched energy generation infrastructure this was great news. No sooner had the discovery been confirmed than the NPP president hailed Ghana’s economic problems to be greatly relieved. Domestically people were cautiously hopeful, but have witnessed the plight of their near neighbours in Nigeria who have massive oil wealth, but are dogged by corruption, environmental damage, and growing inequality and so are desperate that Ghana doesn’t go down the same path.


Internationally, the oil producers began arriving. Initially the discovery was through a UK-US consortium, but the Chinese were soon in negotiations to secure drilling rights in one of the off-shore blocks. The Chinese, like all industrialising countries, need to secure energy supplies and so see sub-Saharan Africa as a region that is under-exploited, although one with higher than average risks for investment. Already the Chinese are well-established in Sudan, Angola, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea with Ghana representing the latest addition to a string of producers bordering the Gulf of Guinea. With oil production due to begin within the next two years it is a critical period for Ghana and the new NDC government who have the benefits of this new revenue stream, but also need to manage the potential downsides.


Ghana’s energy problems run deep. When I was in Accra last month we had power cuts everyday as the water levels in the Volta Dam, Ghana’s main source of electricity, dropped during the dry season. Here, again, the Chinese are heavily involved in energy production through the construction of another hydro-electric dam in the north-west of the country at Bui, and a power plant near Accra.


As part of China’s development assistance and more commercial considerations it has given low interest loans to the Ghana Government for the Bui Dam. The original plans to dam this part of the Black Volta River began in the 1920s and both the Soviet Union in the 1970s and the French in the 1990s looked at the feasibility of the project. However, it was the Chinese who offered the most favourable finance package and the cheapest tender, and got agreement from the Ghana Government in 2005. The Chinese contractor, Sinohydro, is a major multinational and is well under way to finishing the project with electricity beginning to flow in December 2011.


Although Chinese firms in Africa have been criticised for importing their own labour the agreement ensures that jobs go to Ghanaians with about 700 Chinese expatriates working on the project compared with 3000 Ghanaians. Already we have seen migration of job-seekers from other parts of Ghana to the remote Bui site. Bui is also a national park and about one-third of it will be lost to the dam with associated loss of land and wildlife. However, despite some rumours on the web about an anti-dam lobby we made inquiries among a number of NGOs in Ghana and not one of them seemed opposed to the dam, which will add 400 MW of power to the grid. And there are plans to build Bui City next to the dam, which one official optimistically said would be “like Dubai”. All in all, then, these are interesting times for Ghana where the people deeply crave the infrastructure of modernisation and have new lines of finance from China and the prospects of oil revenue.

Cambodia said to be opting for large-scale dam on the Mekong mainstream

January 6, 2009

In an article for IPS dated 1 January and posted on the LaoFAB listserv, “”CAMBODIA:  Opting For The Big Dam”, Andrew Nette writes that

several informed sources in Phnom Penh claim the Cambodia government has already made an in-principle decision to press ahead with the larger configuration

of the two that have been developed by China Southern Power Grid Company for the hydropower project on the Mekong mainstream at Sambor in Kratie Province.

This option

envisages a 2,600 Mw run-of- river dam barraging the entire width of
the Mekong [and] is a variation on the original scheme proposed by the then
Mekong Secretariat in 1994 for a 3,300Mw structure blocking the entire

Nette writes that large mainstream dams have become more popular options for the Cambodian, Lao and Thai governments because of higher fossil fuel prices.

Investors halt power projects in Laos — Vientiane Times

December 17, 2008

Today’s Vientiane Times reports (“Developers suspend major power investments”) that, due to the global recession (hence presumed falling demand and prices for power, particularly in Thailand where some of Laos’ energy exports are destined for), foreign investors have halted power projects. Although China is not mentioned, the projects listed include at least two Chinese-funded hydropower projcets: the Nam Ou and Nam Theun dams.

Members of the LaoFAB newsgroup have been rejoicing at the announcement (“the best possible early Christmas present for Laos,” wrote Keith Barney from York University). Senior Western consultants I have spoken to in the past few days have expressed similar views, seeing the impact of Chinese projects as overwhelmingly negative (though they judged Vietnamese and Korean ones as not better and in some ways worse).

In my earlier post from Vientiane I reported that the secretary-general of the Chinese association here said China was halting its projects due to criticism, to wait until it blows over. Chinese infrastructure projects here do generally seem to be guided by both political and economic goals, so it makes sense that there is a combination of these in this decision. I wonder whether, after the recession is over, there will be adjustments in China’s overseas aid/investment policy/practice.