Striking facts - China's Dam Frenzy

#China boasts more dams than the rest of the world combined.

Before the Communists came to power in 1949, there were only 22 dams of any significant size in China. But now China has more than half of the world’s almost 50,000 large dams.

This feat means that China has completed on average at least one large dam per day since 1949. If dams of all sizes are counted, the number in China surpasses 85,000.

According to Wen Jiabao, China has relocated a total of 22.9 million citizens since 1949 to make way for water projects. So, by official count alone, 1,035 citizens on average have been forcibly evicted daily in the past 62 years for water projects.

China is also the global leader in exporting dams. Its state-run companies today are building more dams overseas than the other international dam builders put together.

BY Brahma Chellaney -

China’s frenzied dam-building hit a wall recently in Burma (Myanmar), where the government’s bold decision to halt a controversial Chinese-led dam project helped to ease the path to the first visit by a US secretary of state to that country in more than a half-century.

The now-stalled $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, located at the headwaters of Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, was designed to pump electricity exclusively into China’s power grid, despite the fact that Burma suffers daily power outages. The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of China’s State Council hailed Myitsone as a model overseas project serving Chinese interests. The Burmese decision thus shocked China’s government, which had begun treating Burma as a reliable client state (one where it still has significant interests, including the ongoing construction of a multibillion-dollar oil and natural-gas pipeline).

Despite that setback, China remains the world’s biggest dam builder at home and abroad. Indeed, no country in history has built more dams than China, which boasts more dams than the rest of the world combined.

Before the Communists came to power in 1949, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. Now the country has more than half of the world’s roughly 50,000 large dams, defined as having a height of at least 15 meters, or a storage capacity of more than three million cubic meters. Thus, China has completed, on average, at least one large dam per day since 1949. If dams of all sizes are counted, China’s total surpasses 85,000.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, China’s dams had the capacity to store 562.4 cubic kilometers of water in 2005, or 20% of the country’s total renewable water resources. Since then, China has built scores of new dams, including the world’s largest: the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

China is also the global leader in exporting dams. Its state-run companies are building more dams overseas than all other international dam builders put together. Thirty-seven Chinese financial and corporate entities are involved in more than 100 major dam projects in the developing world. Some of these entities are very large and have multiple subsidiaries. For instance, Sinohydro Corporation – the world’s largest hydroelectric company – boasts 59 overseas branches.

Both the profit motive and a diplomatic effort to showcase its engineering prowess drive China’s overseas dam-building efforts. China’s declared policy of “noninterference in domestic affairs” actually serves as a virtual license to pursue dam projects that flood lands and forcibly uproot people – including, as with Myitsone, ethnic minorities – in other countries. But it is doing the same at home by shifting its focus from dam-saturated internal rivers to the international rivers that originate in the Tibetan plateau, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria.

China contends that its role as the global leader in exporting dams has created a “win-win” situation for host countries and its own companies. But evidence from a number of project sites shows that the dams are exacting a serious environmental toll on those hosts.

As a result, the overseas projects often serve to inflame anti-Chinese sentiment, reflected in grassroots protests at several sites in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Moreover, by using a Chinese workforce to build dams and other projects abroad – a practice that runs counter to its own “localization” requirement, adopted in 2006 – China reinforces a perception that it is engaged in exploitative practices.

As the world’s most dammed country, China is already the largest producer of hydropower globally, with a generating capacity of more than 170 gigawatts. Yet ambitious plans to boost its hydro-generating capacity significantly by damming international rivers have embroiled the country in water disputes with most neighbors, even North Korea.

More broadly, China’s dam-building passion has spawned two key developments. First, Chinese companies now dominate the global hydropower-equipment export market. Sinohydro alone, having eclipsed Western equipment suppliers like ABB, Alstom, General Electric, and Siemens, claims to control half the market.

Second, the state-run hydropower industry’s growing clout within China has led the government to campaign aggressively for overseas dam projects by offering low-interest loans to other governments. At home, it recently unveiled a mammoth new $635 billion investment program in water infrastructure over the next decade, more than a third of which will be channeled into building dams, reservoirs, and other supply structures.

China’s over-damming of rivers and its inter-river and inter-basin water transfers have already wreaked havoc on natural ecosystems, causing river fragmentation and depletion and promoting groundwater exploitation beyond the natural replenishment capacity.

The social costs have been even higher, a fact reflected in Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s stunning admission in 2007 that, since 1949, China has relocated a total of 22.9 million Chinese to make way for water projects – a figure larger than the populations of Australia, Romania, or Chile. Since then, another 350,000 residents – mostly poor villagers – have been uprooted.

So, by official count alone, 1,035 citizens on average have been forcibly evicted for water projects every day for more than six decades. With China now increasingly damming transnational rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Irtysh, Illy, and Amur, the new projects threaten to “export” the serious degradation haunting China’s internal rivers to those rivers. The time has come to exert concerted external pressure on China to rein in its dam frenzy and embrace international environmental standards.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut and the newly released Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.


Al Qaeda in Africa

The first time the members of al-Qaeda emerged from the forest, they politely said hello. Then the men carrying automatic weapons asked the frightened villagers if they could please take water from the well.

Before leaving, they rolled down the windows of their pickup truck and called over the children to give them chocolate.

That was 18 months ago, and since then, the bearded men in outfits like those worn by Osama bin Laden have returned for water every week. Each time they go to lengths to exchange greetings, ask for permission and act neighbourly, according to locals, in the first intimate look at how al-Qaeda tries to win over a village.

Besides candy, the men hand out cash. If a child is born, they bring baby clothes. If someone is ill, they prescribe medicine. When a boy was hospitalised, they dropped off plates of food and picked up the tab.

With almost no resistance, al-Qaeda has implanted itself in Africa’s soft tissue, choosing as its host one of the poorest nations on earth. The terrorist group has created a refuge in this remote land through a strategy of winning hearts and minds, described in rare detail by seven locals in regular contact with the cell. The villagers agreed to speak for the first time to an Associated Press team in the “red zone,” deemed by most embassies to be too dangerous for foreigners to visit.

While al-Qaeda’s central command is in disarray and its leaders on the run following bin Laden’s death six months ago, security experts say, the group’s five-year-old branch in Africa is flourishing. From bases like the one in the forest just north of here, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is infiltrating local communities, recruiting fighters, running training camps and planning suicide attacks, according to diplomats and government officials.

Even as the mother franchise struggles financially, its African offshoot has raised an estimated $130 million in under a decade by kidnapping at least 50 Westerners in neighbouring countries and holding them in camps in Mali for ransom. It has tripled in size from 100 combatants in 2006 to at least 300 today, say security experts. And its growing footprint, once limited to Algeria, now stretches from one end of the Sahara desert to the other, from Mauritania in the west to Mali in the east.

The group’s stated aim is to become a player in global jihad, and suspected collaborators have been arrested throughout Europe, including in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, England and France. In September, the general responsible for US military operations in Africa, Army Gen. Carter Ham, said AQIM now also poses a “significant threat” to the United States.

The answer to why the group has thrived can be found in this speck of a town, where homes are made of mud mixed with straw and families eke out a living either in the fields of rice to the south or in the immense forest of short, stout trees to its north.

It’s here, under a canopy stretching over an area three times larger than the city of New York, that Sokolo’s herders take their cattle. They avoid overgrasing by organising themselves into eight units linked to each of the eight wells, labelled N1 through N8, along the 50-mile-long perimeter of the Wagadou forest. They pay $5 per year per head of cattle, and $3 per head of sheep, for the right to water their animals.

When the al-Qaeda fighters showed up with four to five jerry cans and asked for water, they signalled that they did not intend to plunder resources.

“From the moment you lay eyes on them, you know that they’re not Malian,” said 45-year-old herder Amadou Maiga.

They started to come every four or five days in Land Cruisers, with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. At first they stayed for no more than 15 to 20 minutes, said the villagers, including herders, a hunter and employees of the Malian Ministry of Husbandry who travel to the area to vaccinate animals and repair broken pumps. If on Monday they took water from one well, on Wednesday they would go to another, always varying their path.

Fousseyni Diakite, 51, a pump technician who travels twice a month to the forest to check the generators used to run the wells, first ran into the cell in May 2010, when he saw four men in Arab dress inside a Toyota Hilux truck, all with AK-47s at their feet.

He said the men come with medical supplies and try to find out if anyone is sick.

“There is one who is tall with a big chest _ he’s Arab, possibly Algerian. He’s known for having an ambulatory pharmacy. He goes from place to place giving treatment for free,” Diakite said.

They venture into the camps where the herders sleep at dusk and hand out cash to villagers who join them for prayers, he said _ bills of 10,000 West African francs (about $20), equal to nearly half the average monthly salary in Mali.

Most of the herders sleep in lean-to’s in camps at the forest’s edge. Because these are temporary settlements, they do not have mosques, unlike most villages in this nation twice the size of France that is 90 percent Muslim.

In Boulker, a hamlet near the forest, the fighters left 100,000 francs (around $200), instructing locals to buy supplies and build an adobe mosque, Diakite said.

“They said that for every population center with at least 10 people, there should be a mosque,” he said.

Along with its poverty, Mali has an enormous geography and a weak central government — not unlike Afghanistan, where bin Laden first used the charm offensive to secure the loyalty of the local people, said Noman Benotman, a former jihadist with links to al-Qaida, now an analyst at the London-based Quilliam Foundation.

“We used to teach our people about this. It’s part of the military plan — how to treat locals. This is the environment that keeps them alive,” said Benotman, who first met bin Laden in Sudan and who spent years fighting alongside al-Qaida in Afghanistan. He said bin Laden gave his fighters specific instructions on how to conduct themselves: Don’t argue about the price, just make the locals happy. Become “like oxygen” to them.

AQIM is taking the lesson to heart. Soon after they began taking water, one of the bearded fighters approached a shepherd at the pump to buy a ram. The fighters were looking to slaughter it to feed themselves. The shepherd offered it to him for free — too afraid to ask for money, said Maiga, the man’s friend.

But the stranger refused to take the ram without payment, and immediately handed over a generous sum.

“They seem to know all the prices ahead of time. They point to a ram and say, `I’ll buy that one for 30,000 cfa ($60),’” said Maiga, quoting the highest sum a herder could expect to get for a ram in these parts. “They never bargain.”

AQIM grew out of the groups fighting the Algerian government in the 1990s, after the military canceled elections to stave off victory for an Islamist party. Over the next decade, they left a trail of destruction in Algeria. Around 2003, they sent an emissary to Iraq to meet an al-Qaida intermediary, according to Benotman. Three years later, the insurgents joined the terror family, in what second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri called “a blessed union.”

Since then, their attacks have taken on the hallmarks of al-Qaida. A pair of explosions this August killed 18 people as they tore through the mess hall of Algeria’s military academy, with the second bomb timed to hit emergency responders.

Al-Qaida in turn appears to be learning from its affiliates, which have used kidnappings for ransom in Algeria, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. After bin Laden’s death in May, investigators found files on his hard drive showing plans to turn to kidnapping to compensate for a decline in donations.

AQIM in particular has perfected what analysts call a “kidnap economy,” drawing on its refuge in Mali, according to diplomats, hostage negotiators and government officials. In 2003, the group kidnapped and transported 32 mostly German tourists from southern Algeria to Mali, where, according to a member of Mali’s parliament, they struck a deal with local authorities that is still in effect today.

“The agreement was, `You don’t hurt us, we won’t hurt you,’” said the parliament member, formerly involved in hostage negotiations, who asked not to be identified because of the danger involved.

The government of Mali denies these accusations, but officials cited in diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks make the same assertion. The president of neighboring Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, told his American counterparts in 2009 that Mali is “at peace with AQIM to avoid attacks on its territory.” Whereas the al-Qaida cell has captured more than 50 foreigners in Algeria, Niger and Mauritania, hardly any of the violence has touched Mali.

The cell has also managed to recruit local fighters, including 60 to 80 Tuaregs, the olive-skinned nomads who live in the Sahara desert, according to a security expert. And villagers say they have seen black-skinned sub-Saharan Africans in the pickups speaking the languages of Mali, Guinea and Nigeria.

“The situation in Mali is they have become locals — they are not foreigners,” said Benotman. “This is really, really very, very difficult to do, and it makes it very hard to get rid of them.”

One thing still stands in al-Qaida’s way: Its hardcore ideology does not gel with the moderate Islam practiced by Mali’s nomads. Most of them said they were afraid, caught between need for the money al-Qaida offers and wariness of its extremist beliefs.

When bin Laden died, the members of the local cell went from well to well to ask people to pray for his soul, according to Amaye ag Ali Cisse, an employee of the Ministry of Husbandry who travels twice a month to the wells to oversee the vaccination of animals.

“Everyone is uncomfortable,” he said. “This is a religion that doesn’t belong to us.”

The herders say the fighters have not tried to impose their ideology by force. Instead, they say that the AQIM members wait until they have seen a herder at least a few times before broaching the subject.

“It was the third time that I saw them that they started preaching to me,” said Maiga. “They said that everything they do is in order to seek out God.”

Herder Baba Ould Momo, 29, said he tries to come up with an excuse to leave when the pickup trucks arrive at the well, because he’s afraid the terror cell will pull him in. He said they backed off when they noticed he wasn’t interested.

“The first thing they try to do is invite people to join them in the forest. If they see that the person is wavering, it’s then that they start preaching — saying everything is transitory,” said Momo, who like most of the herders wears plastic flip-flops, with a robe of wrinkled cloth. “But if the person is categorical in saying `No,’ they leave them alone.”

In June, Mauritania and Mali led a rare joint attack on the al-Qaeda cell in the Wagadou Forest. However, herders say that a week earlier, the al-Qaeda fighters told them that an attack was imminent and that they had laid down land mines in the forest. Mauritania blames Malian officials for tipping off AQIM.

The herders said that for around two weeks, they didn’t see the bearded fighters. Then they returned with a new fleet of Hilux pickup trucks, and with more men. Since then, the fighters’ tracks have been all over the forest floor, in a map of constant movement, said 60-year-old hunter Cheickana Cisse. They no longer sleep in the same place.

Just as Cisse was taking a drink of water at the N7 pump on a recent evening, two pickup trucks mounted with anti-aircraft cannons and loaded with combatants drove up. The men had chains of ammunition strapped across their chests, and belts loaded with cartridges.

They laid their AK-47s in a circle on the ground to create a space to pray, like a symbolic mosque. One of them asked Cisse if he had heard of bin Laden.

“He said, `We’re like this with bin Laden,’” Cisse explained, intertwining his right and left index fingers like a link in a chain. “He said, `We’re al-Qaeda.’”

The elderly hunter tried to slip away just as one of the fighters made the call to prayer.

“And they said, `You? Aren’t you going to pray?’ They told me to come into the circle. I could feel them watching me,” he said.

The men kneeled inside the circle of weapons. Four others guarded them, including one who climbed on the roof of the truck. Cisse tiptoed inside and began going through the prayer. “I kept stealing glances to see if they were doing the same moves as me,” he said. “I know the words, but I was scared.”

When the group had finished, the four who had kept vigil took their turn inside the circle. Cisse quietly walked away.

They didn’t try to stop him.