By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese support for controversial dam-building schemes around the world risks a backlash from affected communities and even violence due to a lack transparency and the ignoring of residents' wishes, activists said Wednesday.
Chinese companies and banks are becoming deeply involved in such projects in Africa and Asia, and despite a growing awareness they have to be more transparent and accountable, this frequently does not happen, the activists said.
"We are dismayed to see a reckless role of many companies," Peter Bosshard, policy director of California-based International Rivers, told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.
"There is still often a complete lack of transparency and consultation, particularly with civil society groups in the host countries," he added.
Beijing says that Chinese companies operating abroad have to comply with relevant national laws and that they must respect people there and the environment.
Rights groups say this frequently does not happen.
In Myanmar, Chinese companies are building or funding some particularly divisive dam schemes, Bosshard said.
"If such huge infrastructure projects go forward, the (Myanmar) army takes over and occupies the villages," he said.
"There's no question that the indigenous populations are very unhappy with these projects which they see as an extension of military rule in Burma, and that this will lead to serious conflict."
Last year, a series of bombs exploded at a hydropower project site being jointly built by a Chinese company in northern Myanmar's Kachin state.
In neighboring Laos, plans for the first dam across the lower Mekong River are putting it on a collision course with its neighbors and environmentalists who fear livelihoods, fish species and farmland could be destroyed.
While the $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam is a mostly Thai-led project, another mooted scheme not too far away, the Paklay Dam, is Chinese-led, said Bosshard.
"That would be a matter of serious concern if they took that up. What has been said about Xayaburi also applies to Paklay and the other downstream dams."
There is not just a threat of unrest in the former Burma.
Ikal Angelei, director of Friends of Lake Turkana in Kenya, which is trying to stop a partly Chinese-funded dam being built upstream in Ethiopia, said she worried the dam could lead to fights for water in the arid region.
"We are pastoralist communities who are constantly struggling for resources. Any more pressure on resources, which are depleting due to climate change, would lead to increased conflict," she said.
"Pastoralist communities right now are more armed than any government. More and more old men and women are saying if it means that we have to pick up our arms and go and fight then we are willing to do it."
Policy lenders like China Exim Bank are now increasingly being joined by commercial lenders such as Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world's biggest bank by market value, in financing foreign dams.
Johan Frijns, coordinator of BankTrack, said Chinese banks funding dam schemes had to ensure they did not lend when there were serious environmental or human rights concerns.
"We know that Chinese banks within mainland China make a great effort toward sustainability," he said. "We call upon Chinese banks to ... align with their European and U.S. peers who have all adopted standards for lending."
China's dam projects at home, on the upper reaches of both the Mekong and Brahmaputra, have caused concern too. Some have worried China could use these dams politically, withholding water from downstream countries as a bargaining tool.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei Tuesday said China had "always adopted a responsible attitude" toward such projects and "fully considered the impact on downstream countries."
"Using these projects as political clout ... I think China has every reason not to do that," said Bosshard.
"But of course, once the dams are built it always has the potential and I certainly understand if downstream countries are worried."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)