This article originally appeared in the Phnom Penh Post.
Grassroots mobilisation has successfully pressured Chinese dam operators to adopt social safeguards in countries like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, according to a new study in the journal Energy Policy, though one observer yesterday said the firms still had much room for improvement.
Over the past 15 years, China began working to protect its reputation as an international player in large dam development by adopting norms and standards to protect local populations, the study’s authors concluded. That’s largely because social mobilisation and pressure from non-profits have convinced Chinese state-owned enterprises and banks that it’s more costly not to meet these standards.
The authors define “social safeguards” as policies that ensure people who are affected by the project benefit from it, and are consulted throughout the project’s duration.
“We find that social safeguard norms adopted have significantly changed in the past 15 years,” the study reads. “Chinese dam developers nowadays claim to adhere to various international social safeguard norms, with China Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro both publicly committing not to build any projects without an ESIA [Environmental Social Impact Assessment].”
According to the report, the suspension of the Myitsone dam in Myanmar in 2008 was a game changer, because it demonstrated that project suspension was a credible threat.
Previously, Chinese companies adhered more frequently to local environmental laws rather than international standards. But in countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, this was largely meaningless due to the lack of relevant legislation. Cambodia didn’t pass a set of environmental and social safeguards until 2010, the report notes.
But according to Pianporn Deetes of the non-profit International Rivers, many China-run dams still fail to live up to international standards.
“In the Mekong countries including Cambodia, environmental standards still need to be improved,” Deetes said. “Information and data is also difficult to obtain when Chinese companies act as contractors, and therefore are responsible uniquely for carrying out the work, and not responsible for completing [environmental and social assessments], or any public participation.”
And even if international standards are met, observers haven’t reached a consensus about how stringent those standards should be. About 75 percent of NGOs surveyed said current projects performed poorly from a social safeguards perspective.