But while China presents hydropower as clean energy, with dams causing little or no environmental impact, the reality is very different. Like any form of energy production, there are trade-offs. Dams can be cleaner and cheaper than burning fossil fuels, but they inevitable displace people, threaten livelihoods, and by submerging farmland and natural habitats they affect food security and destroy ecosystems.
And building so many dams has caused significant environmental and social damage in China. The enormous Three Gorges Dam displaced 1.24 million people, negatively affecting livelihoods that depended on the flood-pulse nature of the Yangtze river. The Lancang river (also known as the Mekong) has five dams in operation and plans for a cascade of up to 20. The Lancang Cascade allows China to control the quantity of water reaching the Lower Mekong Basin, especially in the dry season, which is vital to the livelihoods, food security and economies of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and to a lesser extent Thailand. The dams also alter the timing and size of the river’s flood-pulse characteristics, preventing sediment and nutrients from restoring floodplain farmland and also affecting river fisheries.
China is also exporting its hydropower expertise, with around 300 projects in 78 countries under construction by Chinese state-owned hydropower companies such as Sinohydro Corp and Dongfang Electric Corp. In the Lower Mekong Basin, Chinese state-owned firms are building at least 30 dams in Myanmar, 14 in Laos, seven in Cambodia and three in Vietnam. The opportunity to finance, develop, build and contract out this work is an enormous opportunity for China to increase its political influence, develop trade links, and funnel huge profits into its treasury through its state-owned firms.