TATAY RIVER, Cambodia—Up a sweeping jungle valley in a remote corner of Cambodia, Chinese engineers and workers are raising a 100-meter (330-foot) high dam over the protests of villagers and activists. Only Chinese companies are willing to tame the Tatay and other rivers of Koh Kong Province, one of Southeast Asia’s last great wilderness areas.
It’s a scenario that is hardly unique. China’s giant state enterprises and banks have completed, are working on or are proposing some 300 dams from Algeria to Burma.
Poor countries contend the dams are crucial to bringing electricity to tens of millions who live without it and boosting living standards. Environmental activists and other opponents counter that China, the world’s No. 1 dam builder, is willing and able to go where most Western companies, the World Bank and others won’t tread anymore because of environmental, social, political or financing concerns.
“China is the one financier able to provide money for projects that don’t meet international standards,” said Ian Baird, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin who has worked in Southeast Asia for decades. “You go to China if you want to have them financed.”