Environment, Development and Sustainability

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 301–324 | Cite as

An analysis of China’s investment in the hydropower sector in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region

  • Frauke UrbanEmail author
  • Johan Nordensvärd
  • Deepika Khatri
  • Yu Wang


The Mekong River’s natural resources offer large benefits to its populations, but it also attracts the interest of foreign investors. Recently, Chinese firms, banks and government bodies have increasingly invested in large hydropower projects in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. Due to China’s rapid economic growth, its rapid industrialisation and its limited domestic natural resources, the Chinese government has issued the ‘Going Out Strategy’ which promotes investments in overseas natural resources like water and energy resources. In search for climate-friendly low-carbon energy, cheap electricity and access to a growing market, Chinese institutions turn to Southeast Asia where Chinese institutions are currently involved in more than 50 on-going large hydropower projects as contractors, investors, regulators and financiers. These Chinese institutions have influence on environmental and social practices as well as on diplomatic and trade relations in the host countries. Currently, there are major gaps in understanding who is engaged, why, how and with what impacts. This paper therefore aims to assess the motives, actors, beneficiaries and the direct and indirect impacts of China’s investment in large hydropower projects in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. The authors use the ‘Rising Powers Framework’ to assess these issues, which is an adapted version of the Asian Drivers Framework.


China Mekong Hydropower Natural resources Investments Dams 



The authors would like to thank the UK’s Economics and Social Research Council for funding this work under the Rising Powers China Network (Ref: RES-075-25-0019). The authors are grateful to the participants of three workshops and for the fruitful discussions and presentations produced. Special thanks to Raphael Kaplinksy, Hubert Schmitz, John Humphrey, Dirk Messner and their colleagues for developing the Asian Drivers Framework which was an inspiration for this work. We would like to thank Peter Bosshard and Grace Mang from International Rivers for kindly providing access to their extensive database on Chinese dams.


  1. Adams, W. (2000). The social impact of large dams: Equity and distribution issues. Thematic Review I.1 prepared as an input to the World Commission on Dams, Cape Town.
  2. Aguilar, R., & Goldstein, A. (2009). The chinisation of Africa: The case of Angola. World Economy, 32(11), 1543–1562.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Ampiah, K., & Naidu, S. (2008). The Sino African relationship. In K. Ampiah & S. Naidu (Eds.), Crouching tiger, hidden dragon: Africa and China. Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.Google Scholar
  4. ASEAN—Association of Southeast Asian Nations. (2009). ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation AMBDC.
  5. Asian Development Bank ADB. (2011). Greater Mekong Sub-Region.
  6. Bakker, K. (1999). The politics of hydropower: Developing the Mekong. Political Geography, 18, 209–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bosshard, P. (2009). China dams the world. World Policy Journal, 10, 43–51.Google Scholar
  8. Chang, X. L., Liu, X., & Zhou, W. (2009). Hydropower in China at present and its further development. Energy, 35(11), 4400–4406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dore, J., & Yu, X. (2004). Yunnan hydropower expansion: Update on China’s energy industry reforms and the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha hydropower dams. Working Paper from Chiang Mai University’s Unit for Social and Environmental Research and Green Watershed.
  10. DTK German Dam Committee. (2002). The Three Georges project at the Yangtze: Provisions and reality.
  11. Fearnside, P. M. (2002). Greenhouse gas emissions from a hydroelectric reservoir (Brazil’s Tucurui dam) and the energy policy implications. Water, Air, and Soil pollution, 133, 69–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gaung, J. S. (2011). Hydropower attracts big investment in Myanmar. The Myanmar Times.
  13. Goh, E. (2004). China in the Mekong River Basin: The regional security implications of resource development on the Lancang Jiang. Nanyang Technological University.
  14. Hayashi, S., Murakami, S., Xu, K.-Q., & Watanabe, M. (2008). Effect of the Three Gorges Dam project on flood control in the Dongting Lake area, China, in a 1998-type flood. Journal of Hydro-environment Research, 2(3), 148–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Heinrich Böll Stiftung (2008). Rethinking investments in natural resources: China’s emerging role in the mekong region (Policy Brief). WWF and International Institute for Sustainable Development.Google Scholar
  16. Humphrey, J., & Messner, D. (2005). The impact of the Asian and other drivers on global governance.
  17. Humphrey, J., & Messner, D. (2006). China and India as emerging global governance actors: Challenges for developing and developed countries. IDS Bulletin, 37(1), 107–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Hwang, S. S., Xi, J., Cao, Y., Feng, X., & Qiao, X. (2007). Anticipation of migration and psychological stress and the Three Gorges Dam project, China. Social Science and Medicine, 65(5), 1012–1024.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. IEA International Energy Agency. (2010–2012). IEA Statistics.
  20. International Rivers. (2008a). The Three Gorges Dam: The cost of power.
  21. International Rivers. (2008b). Delegate calls for Tiger Leaping Gorge rethink.
  22. International Rivers. (2008c). The sleeping dragon awakes: China’s growing role in the business and politics of hydropower development in the Mekong Region.
  23. International Rivers. (2009a). Mekong mainstream dams: Threatening South East Asia’s food security.
  24. International Rivers. (2009b). Dam-induced seismicity.
  25. International Rivers. (2010). China’s global role.
  26. International Rivers. (2011). Database of China’s dam building projects in Southeast Asia.
  27. International Rivers. (2012a). New wave of Three Gorges-sized dams raise old fears.
  28. International Rivers. (2012b). China’s major rivers.
  29. Jönsson, K. (2009). Laos in 2008: Hydropower and flooding (or Business as Usual). Asian Survey, 49(1), 200–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kaplinsky, R. (2008). What does the rise of China do for industrialization in SSA? Review of African Political Economy, 35(1), 7–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kaplinsky, R., & Messner, D. (2008). Introduction: The impact of Asian drivers on the developing world. World Development, 36(2), 197–209.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Magee, D. (2006). Powershed politics: Yunnan hydropower under Great Western development. China Quarterly, 185, 23–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. McDonald, K., Bosshard, P., & Brewer, N. (2009). Exporting dams: China’s hydropower industry goes global. Journal of Environmental Management, 90, S294–S302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McNally, A., Magee, D., & Wolf, A. T. (2009). Hydropower and sustainability: Resilience and vulnerability in China’s powersheds. Journal of Environmental Management, 90, 286–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mohan, G., & Power, M. (2008). New African choices? The politics of Chinese engagement. Review of African Political Economy, 115, 23–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. MRC Mekong River Commission. (2011). The Mekong River Commission.
  37. National Bureau of Statistics of China NBS. (2011). China statistical yearbook 2010. Beijing: NBS.Google Scholar
  38. Pamlin, D., & Baijin, L. (2007). Rethink China’s outward investment flows. Worldwide Fund for Wildlife.
  39. Rosa, L. P., Dos Santos, M. A., Matvienko, B., Dos Santos, E. O., & Sikar, E. (2004). Greenhouse gas emissions from hydroelectrical reservoirs in Tropical Regions. Climatic Change, 66(1–2), 9–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ruiz-Suarez, l. G., Segura, E., Saldana, A., Ordonez, A., Hernandez, J.M., Sevilla, E. et al. (2003). Greenhouse gases emissions estimates from a projected hydroelectrical dam in Mexico.
  41. Schmitz, H. (2006). Asian drivers: Typologies and questions. IDS Bulletin, 37(1), 54–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Tilt, B., Braun, Y., & He, D. (2009). Social impacts of large dam projects: A comparison of international case: Studies and implications for best practice. Journal of Environmental Management, 90, 249–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change UNFCCC. (2010). Emission reduction targets for Non Annex I countries under the Copenhagen Accord. Appendix IINationally appropriate mitigation actions by China.
  44. Urban, F., Nordensvärd, J., Wang, Y., Khatri, D., & Mohan, G. (2011). China and the African oil sector: channels of engagement, motives, actors and impacts. Brighton: IDS Rising Working Paper, IDS.Google Scholar
  45. Watson, J., & Wang, T. (2007). Who owns China’s carbon emissions? Tyndall Centre Briefing Note No. 23. Tyndall Centre, Norwich.Google Scholar
  46. World Commission on Dams WCD. (2000a). Tucuruí hydropower complex Brazil. Final report.
  47. World Commission on Dams WCD. (2000b). Tarbela dam and related aspects of the Indus River Basin Pakistan. Final report.
  48. World Commission on Dams WCD. (2000c). Dams and development. A new framework for decision-making.
  49. Yu, X. (2003). Regional cooperation and energy development in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region. Energy Policy, 31(12), 1221–1234.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frauke Urban
    • 1
    Email author
  • Johan Nordensvärd
    • 2
  • Deepika Khatri
    • 3
    • 4
  • Yu Wang
    • 5
  1. 1.Centre for Development, Environment and Policy (CeDEP), School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)University of LondonLondonUK
  2. 2.London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)LondonUK
  3. 3.Institute of Development Studies (IDS)University of SussexBrightonUK
  4. 4.IT for ChangeBangaloreIndia
  5. 5.Institute of Energy, Environment and EconomyTsinghua UniversityBeijingChina

Personalised recommendations