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happytoreframetheirworkinenvironmentally friendlytermsasprojectswiththepotential
to reduce dependence on fossil fuels (Frey and Linke 2002). Moreover, in the absence of a
truly game-changing technological advancement in the arena of energy production, energy
policy often looks like a choice between bad options. As I have suggested, China's role in
overseas dam building—through technical consulting and financing, through construction,
of this story. On the subject of the global distribution of environmental ills, it is often said
half-jokingly that “China needs a China.” This clever turn of phrase refers to the fact that
the country, which for a generation has been the dumping ground for dirty industries, now
needs someplace to put the negative externalities of its own fast-paced development tra-
jectory. In the huge expansion of dam building in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa,
China appears to have found a China.
In the Chinese and international press, obituaries are written almost daily for China's
great rivers. Dai Qing, the well-known environmental activist and one of the most out-
spoken critics of the Three Gorges Project from its earliest stages, commented that “the
government built a dam but destroyed a river” (qtd. in Watts 2011). Even high-ranking
party officials have begun to acknowledge to the media the fact that megaprojects such as
the Three Gorges Dam face urgent problems, including water-quality deterioration, sedi-
ment buildup, and even joblessness and conflict in resettled communities. Of course, such
problems would have been best considered before 16 million tons of concrete were poured
across the Yangtze.
I wish to make an equally important, if somewhat less dire, appeal. If the dam projects in
Yunnan continue to move forward, as it appears they will, there should be a public account-
ing of the costs, a solid understanding of who bears them, and clear mechanisms in place to
pay them. Viewed in hindsight a generation from now, this period will be seen as a crucial
turning point at which the world's most populous nation made critical decisions about how
to power its future economic development. The measure of its success will be whether it
can do so with a full accounting of ecological and social costs, an explicit acknowledgment
of the trade-offs, and a commitment to greater transparency in decision making.
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