Thursday, December 13, 2012

Is China Really Building 100 Dams in Africa?

I've just seen a short article on the website of the Oxford University China-Africa Network stating that Beijing is involved in "more than 100 dams" in Africa.


Here's what the author, Dr. Harry Verhoeven, says: 
"Beijing especially is using its formidable technical expertise in hydro-infrastructure and immense foreign reserves to resurrect dam-building overseas: in half of all African countries, from the Sudanese desert and the Ethiopian lowlands to the rivers of Algeria and Gabon, Chinese engineers are involved in the planning, heightening and building of more than 100 dams. The tens of billions of US dollars and thousands of megawatts involved in these projects have so far remained off the radar in the China-Africa debate, but are possibly more consequential for the future of the African continent than the exports of oil, copper and other valuable resources."(emphasis added)
Verhoeven cites a 2009 publication as his source for this statement: Michael Kugelman (ed.), Land Grab? The Race for the World's Farmland. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 2009. Verhoeven doesn't provide a page number, but I searched through this online publication for "dams" and "100" and found nothing relevant to this claim. Sources aside, this claim is problematic for several reasons.

It's true that there has been a resurgence of interest in building hydropower dams in Africa, and that Chinese banks and construction companies are part of this. (This interest has not been "off the radar" however. I wrote about it in The Dragon's Gift. Peter Bosshard at International Rivers has been following this trend and wrote about it for Pambazuka.)

International Rivers recently produced the 2nd edition of a report on Chinese interest in dam building. It is probably their database of media reports that is the ultimate source for this statement. Yet International Rivers has also been prone to exaggeration on this issue. I found this with the spin that accompanied their earlier report on Chinese "dam building".

In 2010, International Rivers released a list of (only) 25 dam projects that were said to have Chinese involvement, in Africa, as of 2008 (map to right).  Although the map and list implied that these were current and active cases, this is what I found (and blogged here on January 28, 2011), on looking into each case: 
  1. Four were Chinese foreign aid projects, usually quite small, completed between 1982 and 1996.
  2. Three involved repairs or expansions of hydropower plants (i.e. new turbines, etc.), not dams. 
  3. Ten appear at the present moment to have been MOUs or expressions of interest that went nowhere
  4. Three seemed to have construction contracts signed recently & appeared to have financing lined up, but hadn't started construction & so could still fall apart (Ethiopia-Neshi; Togo-Adjarala; Gabon-Grand Poubara). [note: The Gabon project will now not be financed by the Chinese, as the associated mine, Belinga, was recently awarded to an Australian company.] 
  5. As of January 2011 only 5 of the listed projects were dams currently under construction or completed recently (Ethiopia-Tekeze; Ghana-Bui; Congo-Imboulou; Sudan-Merowe; Botswana-Dikgatlhong).
It does no service to our understanding of this important issue to create yet another stylized picture that appears to be way out of proportion to the reality. 

If you write about Chinese involvement in building dams in Africa, why not spend a little time and effort to dig into these cases and come up with numbers that you can stand behind?  Remember what Steven Mufson and John Pomfret, former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, wrote on February 28, 2010: “inflating the challenge from China could be just as dangerous as underestimating it.” I got that quotation from International Rivers, by the way, and send them a tip of the hat.

Note: This blog posting was slightly revised on January 8, 2012. I removed some snarky language that unfairly generalized about advocacy NGOs. I am impressed by the new work being done at International Rivers and their efforts to push for accuracy.  Anyone reading this blog should also see the comments section for a robust response and explanation from the author, Dr. Harry Verhoeven, who stepped up to the plate to provide more information about his research, and from Peter Bosshard at International Rivers.


  1. Actually I was pleasantly surprised that they actually put a cap on the number of dams "reportedly the Chinese are going to built in Africa in their land-grabbing craze", to only '100'

    They could, you know, hike that number to '1,000' or even '1 million', if they want to.

    Perhaps it's because of their "academic integrity" that they have decided on the number '100'.

    I, for one, am more than happy to give them credit for that.

  2. By the way, Dear Ms. Brautigam, the "China Daily" newspaper has just launched its weekly African version.

  3. Deborah Brautigam is correct to point out exaggerations in the reporting about China’s role in Africa, and we appreciate the hat tip in her blog post.

    We don’t know Harry Verhoeven, or the sources he has used for his paper. International Rivers’ running list of Chinese overseas dams currently includes 87 projects in Africa. Our website clarifies that some of the projects listed are at the MoU stage, others are under construction, and yet others have already been completed. We cross-check sources and indicate where the quality of the data for entries appears uncertain. Official information is hard to come by, and it’s impossible to give exact figures on the number of Chinese overseas dams. Yet the rapid rise of Chinese dam builders and financiers in Africa and other parts of the world is beyond doubt.

    While we acknowledge the limitations of our data, we would not agree that only dams that are under construction are relevant. Even at the MoU stage, large projects capture government capacity and may prevent better solutions from moving forward. In the case of the Kajbar Project in Sudan, dam plans have triggered severe repression even if they may still be abandoned. Many other projects have serious social and environmental impacts long after they have been completed.

    Our updated report, The New Great Walls, gives more detail on the role of China’s global dam industry. It is not alarmist, but describes how civil society groups and host communities in Africa and elsewhere can influence and engage Chinese dam builders active in their countries.

  4. Thanks Peter. I always appreciate your careful balancing in your role as constructive critic. I know it is tough to check everything, but I would not include as a "Chinese overseas dam" something that a Chinese company once expressed interest in building. (I did look at your list just now and was impressed by how many "dead" projects you have dropped off of it. Good job.) One thought: Derek Scissors at Heritage maintains a public database of Chinese global FDI projects. His Excel sheet has separate tabs, each groups similar projects, including (1) those that are confirmed as under way/complete; (2) troubled transactions, and (3) contracts that involve Chinese companies but are not equity. He also groups the data by the year of the (firm) commitment to invest. Your data could be much more helpful for many purposes if you separated it into projects that are completed or underway, organized by year, "troubled transactions" that involve some level of commitment but that have not moved forward, those where a Chinese bank is involved, and those that are only an expression of interest. Your constituents could also benefit by zeroing in on the key projects of interest more easily this way.

  5. Thank you for the suggestion, Deborah. We will discuss it when our China team is back together again, in January.

  6. While accuracy is obviously important (not only for scholars), I always try to guess why this blog is a counterbalance platform to systematically dismiss or downgrade the job of organizations that, like IR or HRW, try to look at something fundamental (also as scholar, Deborah): is China improving the life of African people? In short, is Africa (and not only the elites, but most important the people) really benefiting from the Chinese engagement?

    I read this blog and sometimes I have the feeling expressed by Ronald Coase in its latest article in Harvard Business Review (dec 2012). “Saving Economics from the Economists”.

  7. In response to the question from Ma Han : "Is China improving the life of African people?", may I request Ma Han to ponder the following questions before dragging China into the equation ---

    1. Who should be responsible for the improvement the lives of the African people?

    2. How much improvement of the lives of the African people had World Bank, and/or the IMF, and/or the various United Nation agencies contributed, throughout the past 6 decades or so, after World War II?

    3. Through the foreign aid programs from the Western countries, which totaled hundreds of billions, has much the West improved on the lives of the African people?

    The question "Is China improving the life of the African people" by itself is a loaded question. It implies that China should be tasked to improved on the lives of the people of an entire continent.

    Why single out China?

    Why not India, or Indonesia, or Brazil, or any other country?

    We must first understand that the primary responsibility of improving the lives of the people of a certain continent (not only Africa) falls on the people of that continent itself.

    Aid from the outside, whether or not they came with string-attached, should be relegated to a secondary role.

    I find it ludicrous for some parties hell-bent on blaming China for each and every ill of this world we live in.

    If it is to be said, China does not owe the world anything.

    China did not import African slaves, unlike the West.

    China did not plunder African resources via colonization, unlike the West.

    China did not engage in any mass murder of the African natives, unlike the West.

    Neither morally nor financially did China harm Africa.

    In fact, China's investments in Africa, - most, if not all, - are designed to achieve a win/win outcome.

    Unlike the West, China has no intention nor the will to conquer/plunder Africa.

  8. Dear Deborah,

    I was just alerted to this post and the interest you took in my blog piece an hour ago- your concern is much appreciated. I'm an admirer of much of your work and I think it is highly important- hence why my colleagues and I have also invited you not just once but several times to Oxford to discuss matters such as these with you.

    As you may know, I completely share your caution in dealing with numbers in the China-Africa debate and also share your concern about inflationary rhetoric (whether in Beijing, Brussels, Washington or Khartoum for that matter) in lauding the benefits of the partnership or trashing the evils China is supposedly doing on the continent. This is the approach I take as a scholar and the approach the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN) has always taken as a platform for the exchange of ideas and information: not to shy away from bold claims but to propose them, reflect on them critically and let different voices -academic and non-academic, Chinese, Africa and third parties,...- speak. People who attend our conferences, events, discussions,...would no doubt confirm this. I would never claim to possess the sole truth or that China-Africa dynamics are, in any way, a black and white story. I regret that some of your comments seem to imply I do.

    Before you accuse me of lowering academic standards or using shoddy numbers (or lecturing me on "not digging into cases"), I would thus advise you to read some of my academic work (as opposed to quoting one blog post, which serves a different purpose than a journal article), particularly on water, power and development and to engage in conversation with me directly, rather than just posting a simplistic blog entry without informing me. Moreover, I find it particularly disappointing to read you making these claims without ever checking them with me or sending a message to clarify matters...It's also surprising as you and I both have a chapter in the same edited volume on "land/water grabs" (Routledge, 2012) and I deal explicitly with the fata morgana case of hydro-agricultural investment in Sudan there, very much tackling some of the inflationary myths local and global elites reiterate regularly regarding such issues.
    I am still very willing to discuss these matters with you and hope we will get the opportunity soon- your insights and feedback would undoubtedly be very valuable; I look forward to them.

    Let me nevertheless already mention one or two things here: I'm thankful for you alerting me to the fact that there seem to have been some major editing problems that somehow escaped my attention. Footnotes 5 and 6 are in the wrong place and have little to do with the paragraph that you quote in part (footnote 7 is in the wrong place too, though in a different paragraph and the Sinohydro reference is not showing up, which is a shame as most people would probably be keen on reading more); I am thus not claiming Kugelman has anything much to say about dams, let alone quote an exact number.

  9. Moreover, as you correctly noted, it says "100 dams" instead of "planning, building and heightening 100 large scale hydro-infrastructure projects" as it should have said (even if dams constitute a big part of that total); this may seem a tiny nuance to some people but is actually pretty important. A dozen of those alone are in Sudan, where I have done most of my fieldwork and where the Dam Programme and "associated projects" as they are called, are much more extensive than Merowe or Kajbar (which are the ones International Rivers has focused on); the heightened Roseires Dam (total cost at the very least around US$800m, according to senior sources in the Sudanese bureaucracy) was inaugurated by President Bashir just three days ago to give but one example; it is not the end of the road at Roseires/Blue Nile State, as now large-scale irrigation infrastructure is scheduled to be built to irrigate 1,5-2m acres downstream (extension of the Rahad scheme and Kenana), several more projects in other words. Work is also ongoing on the Upper Atbara projects as we speak, which are mainly about power generation.

    This being said, I would also like to point out that the title of your own blog post is incorrect: I did not claim China is building 100 dams at this very moment- just like International Rivers (whose work I consider valuable, important and courageous, in Africa, in China and elsewhere) it is important to note not just the nuance of the different types of hydro-infrastructural work but also very much the fact that I explicitly referred to the fact that building is only one aspect of Chinese engagement on the continent- planning, heightening, maintenance and financing are too.

    Should you indeed like to continue a possibly fruitful conversation, please write me to on

    I am just as committed as you are to getting facts right, doing justice to people who can't defend themselves and an engaged form of scholarship.

    Best wishes for the new year,


  10. Hi Harry,
    Thanks for your comments. I appreciate your nuances above and wish they had been in your blog post, which was spun as being about China's active, current role in "megadams" (the title) and "big dams". Irrigation projects would be a separate kind of issue, as you note. I also appreciate that there was apparently an editing error providing the wrong source for your number of "more than 100 dams" but it still isn't clear to me from what you said above what your source was for this number, or if it is your own work, whether the list is public somewhere. BTW, I first tried to "join the conversation" as invited on the website of the blog posting at OUCAN but was exasperated at the difficulty of doing so (and it did not appear to be a public conversation). As you had already posted publicly on this, it seemed a public conversation was appropriate, rather than something conducted one-on-one or out of sight. However, I am always ready to read a draft of any research on China's Africa engagement and make my comments/ask questions before it is published.
    best wishes,

  11. Anyway, after these initial observations and reflections, I explored the topic of Chinese involvement in African hydro-infrastructure further, both with Chinese technical people, political advisors and third party consultants to these Nile Basin projects and began getting a sense that this was not just limited to Sudan-Ethiopia, but a dynamic at play in many other places: something confirmed by the fact that quite a few people working on Merowe/Kajbar/Upper Atbara/Roseires had also done so elsewhere, outside Sudan. I was startled by the sums involved, but also the significant projected impact on water use, electricity generation, government budgets, etc. I then did indeed come across the International Rivers database, which at one point, made claims about more than 150 dam projects globally (if I'm not mistaken) with major Chinese involvement, at various stages of implementation/conception. This inspired me to look deeper into the issue and to begin compiling my own fact sheets and lists of involvement in hydro-electric dams, large scale irrigation, etc but also financing of projects, which I have tried to crosscheck with other data sources, including revised International Rivers stats, info from Sinohydro and other major Chinese players (some of this data is publicly available, some of it was shared with me on a confidential basis) and data from African governments: this is where the number comes from. In peer reviewed publications, I would naturally have to provide as much information as I possibly can to back up this significant claim; in a blog piece, which aimed to kickstart a wider debate about the phenomenon as a whole (rather than just one important element), such elaborations are not the priority. Perhaps we differ in opinion on this point, but I would hope the broader conversation is what is really of value, with many of the details and nuances left for follow-up discussions (like this one), policy meetings and academic exchanges. The key point really is that China is playing a very important role, in many different ways, in putting hydro-infrastructure back on the agenda in the least dammed part of the world.

  12. Moving forward, I guess the challenge for us all (you, me, Peter Bosshard,...) is to try to eliminate 'double bookings', identify oversights, attribute relative weights to different projects, take this forward and develop a deeper understanding and possible policy recommendations to different actors concerned (something I already do extensively in the Nile Basin context, cf. my Chatham House report). It's a challenge, as you know, not limited to dams, but a whole range of other issues and sectors; but it just happens that hydro-infrastructure tends to be particularly significant because of the ways in which it locks in certain economic and ecological pathways and consolidates or overhauls political control over core areas & peripheral regions.

    In conclusion, I hope that despite the bad communication between the editor and I (and my fault in not checking that my piece had been published in the way I intended it, when it was written back in July, with footnotes in the wrong place or left out during the publication process) and that despite your legitimate intolerance of inflationary claims in general in this debate, you still found it a worthwhile piece in drawing attention to a series of highly consequential developments on the continent that have -with a few notable exceptions- been largely left out of the China-Africa or African development debate.

    Looking forward to further discussions -in person, in the journals and, yes, in the blogosphere- in the future.

    Best wishes,


    1. Dear Mr. Verhoeven,

      One excuse after another, that is what I read from your many replies to Deborah.

      Lemme quote just a single sentence of you have written, from your Oxford site:

      "... hundreds of new projects have commenced in the last few years. China, India and Brazil ..."

      "HUNDREDS OF NEW PROJECTS", that is what you wrote.

      You never use words like "renovation", "repair", "enhancement", but instead, "hundreds of new projects" is what you wrote.

      Over here, you are trying to argue that what you wrote does not reflect what you mean.

      You wanted Deborah to, lemme quote you ... "I would thus advise you to read some of my academic work"

      You call what you have written "academic work" ??

      Does the article that Deborah has pointed out even remotely qualify as "academic"??

      It is one thing to say "build 100 houses".

      It is another thing to say "repairing, renovating, rebuilding 100 houses".

      By saying "build 100 houses" people may conjure up the image of the clearing of a piece of virgin land (with no houses on it) to build 100 *NEW* houses.

      By stating "repairing, renovating, rebuilding 100 houses", the scenario is entire different. Here, people will have the picture of 100 houses that had already been built some time ago, and they are in various stages of disrepair, so someone have to come in to renovate, repair and if necessary, rebuild the houses.

      In your article, you are accusing China for "building 100 dams in Africa" !

      You never mention anything about the existing dams that may be in terrible shape, that may pose danger to people living downstream, et cetera.

      If you still count yourself as one from the "Academia", please, Mr. Verhoeven, gain some integrity and start being honest with whatever you write.

  13. (this was the first part of the response)

    Dear Deborah,

    thanks for your new reaction and thanks for letting me know about the OUCAN blog platform difficulties with responding; I have e-mailed our Central Administrator because we obviously definitely want voices like yours to be able to respond to pieces we put out there!

    As for the dam-building, the numbers and the sourcing: perhaps I ought to give some background here. I was originally drawn to the subject because of research I have been doing on Sudan's Dam Programme and the military-Islamist regime's Agricultural Revival (subjects on which I have published quite a few academic pieces and a policy report for Chatham House); it was through contacts with Sudanese technocrats, economic elites and politicians that I was alerted to the massive role of China in this story. Not just in terms of the actual construction and Chinese labour being used to construct Merowe and, to a lesser extent, heighten Roseires (which is the more sensitive dam project, as it is in a highly strategic location and a war-torn region: sadly I am just about the only academic writing about the issue, to the best of my knowledge), but also on the "ideological" level, in that China's own experience with big projects, like dams, clearly tantalised a number of Sudanese policy-makers who buy into high-modernist imaginations of development. Moreover, I was told by several Sudanese interlocutors that Chinese officials had not just played a wait and see role, but actively argued the case for dam-led development in Africa. Don't get me wrong: the Sudanese Dam Programme is fundamentally Sudanese in terms of political leadership and project initiation -and I expect most African hydro-infrastructure projects are-, but a key element of Chinese soft power, through the high modernism meets good business link, is crucial in my view. In this context, you may be interested in a future (academic) piece, which I co-authored with Ricardo Soares de Oliveira and Will Jones, on what we term "illiberal state-building" in Africa and the role China's experience -and its envoys abroad- play in the imaginaries of the Ethiopian, Angolan, Sudanese and Rwandan elites crafting and implementing these projects.

  14. Hi Harry,
    This is all very helpful and I have found your elaboration nuanced, heartening and stimulating. I'm sorry we had to "meet" this way, but I understand that the British style of academic debate is more robust than it is over here, in any case. There is no question but that Chinese banks, companies & officials see huge potential for hydropower in Africa. (It's also clear that African governments have long felt stymied in efforts to develop their hydropower resources. Many of the projects the Chinese are interested in have been on the drawing board for decades. And for a different take on this, see work by a South African at Harvard, John Briscoe, including “Overreach and response: The politics of the World Commission on Dams and its Aftermath,” Water Alternatives, vol. 3, no. 2, pp. 399-415, 2010.) I would agree with your overall analysis on the enormous importance of China's role & example here (India and Brazil being smaller but also significant and of like minds) and welcome what you and Ricardo & Will are writing. In retrospect, I apologize for the (frustrated) tone of my piece, which stemmed from the end note being wrong. It wasn't clear that you were reporting on your own research. A comment and link to something longer/more elaborated of yours would have helped. When I see a new claim like this, I usually like to check it out. The absence of a source made it impossible to do a spot check on the cases that made up "100", and as we both know, so many people make bold statements on things like this without checking.

  15. I am sorry to say this, but academics are really pathetic! Keep debating whether its 100 new, renovated or expanded dams that are being built. Keep debating who has the best database, it is very useful to the fight against poverty and drive for economic growth. To the Universities that host you, please continue funding yourself to irrelevance, because this is exactly what you are doing. All that is being talked about here is irrelevant to Africans, our leaders and our partners. We will continue building dams because its a renewable source of energy which we have in abundance and which cost is 10 times cheaper than solar or wind power! If Dams are such a fascination to you, spend more time of your research on how best to square the circle of access to power and water with the impact dams have on environmental and population displacement challenges