Social safeguards in Chinese-led dam projects in Indochina

New research by Oxford DPhil student, Julian Kirchherr, documents how Chinese dam builders are increasingly adopting international standards in response to dam opposition.

Chinese dam developers are at the forefront of global hydropower development, driving significant dam construction, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. New research, led by Oxford doctoral student, Julian Kirchherr, published in Energy Policy, documents the change in social safeguard norms in Chinese-led dam projects in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

The paper, published as part of Kirchherr’s doctoral research at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment, found that Chinese dam developers increasingly take international social safeguard norms into account when developing dam projects. This change in approach can be attributed to social mobilization in opposition to Chinese dam construction, with the suspension of the Myitsone Dam in 2011 considered a particular game changer for Chinese dam developers.

“Chinese dam developers would never have believed that the governments in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia would consider suspending a Chinese-led dam project”, said Kirchherr. “This perception changed thanks to the Myitsone Dam.”

Despite the opposition to the Myitsone dam, the Government of Myanmar has not yet cancelled the project. In a recent commentary published in the Myanmar Times, Myanmar’s leading daily, Kirchher, and co-author Matthew Walton, Aung San Suu Kyi Senior Research Fellow at St Antony’s College, argue that the project should be aborted:

“Continuing it would be terrible for international safeguards”, said Kirchherr.

Kirchherr’s earlier DPhil research highlighted that a lack social safeguards are a root cause of massive anti-dam-protests. His work described the strategies implemented by anti-dam-movements in Myanmar and Thailand that culminated in the suspension of projects, ultimately encouraging Chinese developers to adopt international social safeguard norms.

Kirchherr, recently took up an assistant professor position at the Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, where he will launch a research group focussing on the circular economy as a vehicle for business sustainability.