Over the past few weeks, several regions in southern, eastern, and central China have experienced torrential rains and large-scale flooding. Affected regions include Hubei province, where Wuhan (the epicenter of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic) is located. So far, more than 140 people have died and over 200,000 people have been displaced from towns, where the floods have damaged houses and other infrastructure. Overall, an estimated 37 million people have been affected by these floods. Economic losses arising from this are estimated to be around $3 billion and might rise further if the situation continues deteriorating.
These cities are located downstream from China’s many dams, several of which have been releasing floodwater as the rains have accumulated. Most of these cities have as a result experienced flooding and associated damage and disruption. These floods, the increased amounts of water currently being discharged from dams in China, and satellite imagery have raised recurring concerns regarding the structural stability of dams in China, especially the Three Gorges Dam (TGD), among other such infrastructures.
The annual flood season in this part of China only begins in earnest around July, but authorities had started letting water through in June of this year. They had claimed that the opening of the dam’s spillways was for electricity-generation purposes. Some days later, however, Beijing admitted that the water release was a part of emergency floodwater discharge.
Authorities have also begun blaming “foreign forces” for trying to “tarnish” the dam and the Chinese government’s image. As noted above, the release of these floodwaters from the dams has compounded flooding in downstream regions. This—and not the alleged foreign propaganda—has been the cause of locals China raising questions regarding the TGD’s structural integrity, and whether the floodwater release has something to do with the dam’s structural weaknesses. Although greater clarity is needed, the locals’ doubts are not entirely unfounded.
Right from the start, the TGD, which is located in Hubei Province, was controversial due to its ambitious scope and attendant environmental impact. Based on sheer capacity, the TGD, which became fully operational (i.e. including with electricity generation capabilities), in 2012, is currently the world’s largest power plant. The structural integrity of this dam has, however, always raised questions. For example, shortly after the reservoir was filled up for the first time, approximately 80 cracks appeared on the dam. Even as recently as June 2020, scholars and scientists raised red flags regarding the structural integrity of the TGD, but Beijing denied those claims.
Scholars have also stated that the construction of this dam has also contributed to exacerbating seismic activity (such as earthquakes) as well as droughts in lower riparian regions. Even as far back as 2011, the Chinese government had admitted to the scale and scope of the threats posed by the TGD. For instance, during a State Council Executive Meeting, Chinese officials admitted that the TGD had “some urgent problems” with regard to “ecological environmental protection, and geological disaster prevention.”
It might seem as if the TGD is a problem for China alone. But the doubts regarding its structural integrity also give rise to questions regarding the quality and durability of Chinese mega-infrastructure construction projects abroad. Beijing has initiated or supported several construction projects of dams, roads, and pipelines in many foreign countries in Asia and Africa under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). If China’s own major dam in its own country is structurally unsound, how safe might infrastructure projects constructed by Chinese enterprises in foreign countries be? Moreover, what would happen if a situation like the one ongoing in China occurs in the downstream areas of dams in those foreign countries? Given how many of the BRI mega infrastructure projects are being conducted in developing countries with relatively lesser economic strengths, would they be able to recover from the massive human and economic losses that such disasters might bring with them?
Already in South Sudan, communities are being devastated by oil spills and contamination from a Chinese-constructed pipeline in Upper Nile and Unity States. The pipeline, which was constructed at a breakneck speed in the late 1990s during the height of the civil war, is owned and operated by Chinese companies and has since shown signs of major problems. The spills from the pipeline and the poor management of contaminated waste have led to horrific health conditions among communities living near the oil fields. According to one report, birth deformities in the Ruweng County of Unity State (located at the heart of the oil field) have increased from 19 percent in 2015 to 54 percent in 2017. Premature births in the same county have quadrupled, going from 41 in 2015 to 118 in 2017. Moreover, according to lab analysis of water samples from the area, the level of mercury and manganese in the water was seven and ten times, respectively, from what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers permissible. In fact, South Sudan’s own ministries of Petroleum and Health have conducted at least two studies (aside from numerous independent reports) that have linked the health effects directly to oil pollution.
Instead of addressing this clear health emergency, the Sudanese government has opted to bury these reports and turn a blind eye to the suffering of its people. Recently, the oil companies along with the National Security Service of South Sudan have placed severe restrictions on disclosure of data in relation to health problems emerging from the oil fields. The only available health facilities in the oil fields are operated by Chinese oil companies themselves.
In addition, large sections of a road that was under construction by a Chinese company were washed away in May when the rainy season began. The project, implemented by Shandong Hi-Speed Company in coordination with the Ministry of Roads and Bridges, has already cost hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars. The knock-on effects on surrounding communities have prompted human rights lawyers to threaten lawsuits against the Government and the company for the substandard work. The whole episode was another embarrassment for President Salva Kiir, whose office directly handled the contract, and led him to fire the Minister in his office who oversaw the project.
While these two examples demonstrate the structural unsoundness of Chinese construction projects, they also highlight how official corruption in South Sudan works. The government doesn’t dare criticize its patrons in Beijing, even if the lives of its own people are at stake.
As events in Hubei province demonstrate, the structural weaknesses of Chinese mega projects both at home and abroad are rooted in official corruption. This corruption is enhanced by the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime, which has successfully exported to many countries in Asia and Africa, including South Sudan. Without transparency and accountability, officials in China have become enormously wealthy even when such projects directly jeopardize the safety of their people. They are now encouraging their friends abroad to emulate them.