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portant. This idea acknowledges that people's social and cultural lives are inseparable from
the environment.”
Indeed, my interactions with many experts and practitioners—engineers, environmental
scientists, agency officials, and even hydropower corporation representatives—convinced
me that the social and ecological costs of dams are already a topic of major concern in Ch-
ina. The question is how to find pragmatic solutions. At a recent international conference
on hydropower in Washington, D.C., a senior Chinese scientist from a government agency
expressed frustration at what he perceived to be constant criticism of Chinese policy com-
ing from the West ontopics as disparate as human rights and environmental policy.“Every-
one tells China, 'You're wrong,' ” he reflected. “We'll burn fossil fuels for economic de-
velopment. No, that's bad. Okay, so we will build dams. No, that's bad. Then we'll sub-
sidize renewable energy. No, that's bad.” In frustration, he raised a sarcastic, if rhetorical,
question: “What are we going to do—turn out the lights?”
He reminded the conference participants of the fact that energy issues have become a
major focus of international geopolitics as Chinese manufacturers and exporters of solar
panels, for example, have enjoyed generous government subsidies that allow them to
“dump” their products on foreign markets at prices that undercut U.S. manufacturers. In re-
sponse, the U.S. Department of Commerce has placed duties on solar panels imported from
China and has filed formal disputes with the World Trade Organization. He suggested that
our goal should be “to provide advice rather than criticism.”
One productive way forward, in my view, is to steer the conversation toward a basic
question: If we are truly concerned about the ecological and social effects of dams, such as
those on the Lancang and Nu Rivers, what principles should guide us as we decide wheth-
er and how these projects move forward? I would like to suggest several. First, decision
makers need to apply better tools that can provide a clear-eyed assessment of the real costs
and benefits of a given project. There is no getting around the fact that this will require
managing river systems for multiple objectives: energy production and economic develop-
ment, riparian ecosystem health, biodiversity conservation, and local residents' social and
economic well-being.
I have suggested that decision makers often view the true costs of building dams—in
economic terms, but also in the toll on social well-being and cultural heritage—as incident-
al externalities, the faux frais of such projects. But the people whose lives are upended by
displacement and resettlement must be put at the center of the discussion. Decision makers
would do well to pull themselves away from the balance sheets and cost-benefit analyses
on their computer screens and spend some time strolling through a resettled village. Villa-
gers, NGO representatives, and even savvy government officials acknowledged to me that
the human costs of displacement are becoming increasingly untenable.
One reason for the persistence of these externalities is the political polarization that now
characterizes the debate over hydropower. At the same time that government agencies and
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