Global dam construction is accelerating with global hydropower production projected to increase by 73% in the coming years. According to the authors of a new paper entitled Learning the Hard Way: Social safeguard norms in Chinese-led projects in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, many of these projects will be Chinese-led.

Social safeguards, according to the World Bank, are defined as policies in place to ensure that project-affected people are consulted throughout the life of the project, from conception through to operation and removal, and that these people benefit from it. In this paper, which is described as being the first regional case study of its kind, three sets of social safeguard norms are identified:

  • Host country
  • Chinese
  • International.

The authors – Julian Kirchher from the Faculty of Geosciences, Utrecht University, The Netherlands; Nathanial Matthews from Department of Geography, King's College, London; Katrina J. Charles from School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford; and Matthew J. Walton from St Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK – found that safeguard norms have changed significantly in the past 15 years. Chinese dam developers are increasingly taking into account international norms.

Semi-structured interviews were carried out in the field during 2015/16 in Myanmar, Thailand, China and Singapore for this research project. The authors say that: “Our interviewees believed that international norms may soon prevail in projects implemented by Chinese dam developers.” An NGO leader collaborating with a major Chinese dam developer also said that it is now widely accepted [by Chinese dam developers] that affected people are the first beneficiaries of projects.

Social mobilisation is described as being the root cause altering Chinese dam developers’ cost-benefit calculations regarding the adopting of international safeguard norms. An investor is reported as saying that Chinese developers are “very, very sensitive to public pressure”. Indeed one European dam developer believes that: “The NGOs are an extremely important actor. They are the independent police force that always will nag you and bite you and keep on your tail, and make sure that you stay in line as a big, gigantic international cooperation.”

Protests against Chinese-led dam projects particularly culminated from 2008 onwards with various complaints being filed by international NGOs against schemes. Examples are cited as:

  • Nam-Lik 1-2 Dam in Laos.
  • Kamchay Dam in Cambodia.
  • Myitsone Dam in Myanmar.

Indeed Myitsone Dam was suspended in 2011 due to public protests. The authors refer to this suspension as being “a punch in the stomach” which enabled the Chinese to learn a great deal. According to the report, it was initially believed that governments of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia would not halt a Chinese-led dam project but this soon became “a credible worst-case scenario”. Kirchherr et al state: “If the Myitsone dam project had adhered to international safeguards (particularly the consultation of project-affected people and civil society), this would have minimised protests and possibly avoided suspension and thus financial loss, relevant private sector players believed”.

“Overall,” the report authors conclude, “we find that social safeguard norms adopted in Chinese-led projects in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia have changed significantly in the past 15 years….Only in recent years were international norms employed more frequently in Chinese-led dam projects, with the majority of our interviewees (76%) believing that mostly international norms will be adopted by Chinese-led dam projects….in the near future.”

Furthermore, the research interviews suggest that Chinese dam developers now view the adoption of international social safeguard norms as less costly than their non-adoption. And this, Kirchherr et all add, paints “a rather optimistic picture” regarding social safeguards in Chinese-led dam projects in these countries.


Learning it the Hard Way: Social safeguards norms in Chinese-led dam projects in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, by Julian Kirchhera, Nathanial Matthews, Katrina J. Charles & Matthew J. Walton. Energy Policy, Volume 102, March 2017, Pages 529–539.