China’s Dam Frenzy

NEW DELHI – 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.