Chinese hydropower starting to adopt social and environmental safeguarding norms, but with limitations

China has a leading role in building large hydropower dams in developing nations, partly in the name of sustainable development. New research examines Chinese investments in the least developed countries – the practices of hydropower companies and their financiers, and what drives social and environmental safeguarding practices.

News, 17 March 2022
Cranes tower over the construction of a dam, with a body of water in the foreground

The Merowe dam in northern Sudan, funded with Chinese investments, during its construction in 2005 (Photo: David Haberlah via FlickrCC BY 2.0)

Reports estimate that China funds and has built 320 large hydropower dams in over 140 countries – especially within lower-income countries – totalling 81 gigawatts. This expansion builds on China’s huge domestic hydropower sector.

However, it has largely bypassed pressure for social and environmental ‘safeguarding policies’ designed to identify, avoid and minimise harm to people and the environment arising from hydropower investments. 

A new working paper from IIED, ‘What drives safeguarding for China’s hydropower projects in LDCs?’, shows that Chinese hydropower’s application of social and environmental safeguards in least developed countries (LDCs) reflects a complex governance matrix influenced by Chinese policies and laws, national rules and guidelines, financier conditions, company procedures, informal norms and local stakeholder interests.

It aims to understand the different bodies governing and financing Chinese overseas hydropower investments, and who has the most power to impact the adoption of international standards for social and environmental impact assessment.

The paper also discusses five pathways to strengthening safeguarding norms in Chinese hydropower and makes suggestions on leverage points to improve social and environmental safeguarding practice, as well as recommendations for further research.

“Social mobilisation underpins the other four [pathways], but all are connected and mutually reinforcing. Improving Chinese hydropower safeguarding is an iterative ‘dance’ involving diverse actors, with civil society – Chinese, local and international – playing a key role,” say the paper’s authors.

The working paper suggests three areas for further research:  

  1. Develop much stronger evidence identifying which safeguarding areas particularly need attention. Gender dimensions and benefit sharing may be key areas
  2. Boost transparency through research into scale, finance, management systems and operational practice, and 
  3. Investigate how enhanced attention to climate risk (a hugely important technical issue in most large hydropower projects) might encourage more thorough assessments across the full range of social and environmental risk.

This paper comes from the FutureDAMS research project, led by the University of Manchester, in which IIED is a key partner and which is working to improve the design, selection and operation of dams to support sustainable development. 

Find related reading in the IIED briefing ‘Sharing the benefits of hydropower to improve displaced people’s livelihoods’.