Few countries would be capable of projects such as the Three Gorges Dam or North-South Water Diversion. Others would not consider them. In the US, more large dams are now being decommissioned than being built, often for environmental reasons.
Yet China is already the world leader in water-related infrastructure, and its investments continue to grow. The country is home to nearly half of the world’s 45,000 large dams. As profitable opportunities within China diminish, companies have begun to export their expertise abroad, especially to Southeast Asia and Africa.
China’s preference for large, structural solutions stems from both political and institutional priorities. These projects were an important part of modern China’s early political history, since they fit neatly into the narrative of the greatness of socialism. Both the North-South Water Diversion and the Three Gorges Dam had Mao Zedong’s blessing – always valuable criteria for advancing political goals in China.
Later generations of leaders have been technocrats who also favor engineering solutions. China’s current president, Hu Jintao, is a trained hydraulic engineer and a former employee of dam construction company Sinohydro. Hu is also the author of scientific development, a guiding Party notion that professes a quasi-religious faith in science and engineering.
Scientific development has contributed to the rise of a strong core of engineering-related businesses. China’s powerful state-owned utilities, Huaneng, Huadian, Zhongdiantou, Guodian and Datang, employ tens of thousands of people, and their top executives rank as vice ministers. Tashi Tsering, a prominent Tibetan author, argues that China’s water-related businesses and bureaucracy have become a major force propelling infrastructure projects, as they work to perpetuate their own success and relevance.
China’s dams have brought big advantages, namely offsetting billions of tons of carbon emissions each year. Hydropower met a stunning 16% of China’s total energy demand in 2010, and the country is on track to nearly double hydropower generation in the next decade. The reservoirs created by these dams provide drinking water for a multitude of Chinese cities.
Even so, dams and diversion projects should be weighed against approaches like reducing pollution and waste, which can be cheaper and more effective, said environmentalist Yu Chaoping. “A comparable investment in more water-efficient industrial practice, more water-efficient household appliances, and, above all, the use of more-efficient irrigation practices would likely yield more water [than the North-South Water Diversion],” Yu wrote.
Conservation is inherently cheap, and saving money is powerful motivation. But judging from the proliferation of water infrastructure, this may not be enough to compete with vested interests.