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Chinese hydropower giants and their biodiversity footprints

Biodiversity plays a fundamental role in sustaining the world’s ecosystems and economies. The Sustainable Development Goals acknowledge that arresting biodiversity loss is necessary to reduce global poverty.


Yet the world is experiencing a prolonged decline in biodiversity due to unchecked development into wild spaces and destruction of habitats. This threatens not only the loss of many of the world’s species, but also human health—as the ongoing global pandemic attests—and the global economy.

Biodiversity: China in Focus

In 2021 and 2022, China is scheduled to host the UN conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Yunnan province, a region which accounts for just 4% of China’s land area but harbors an estimated 50% of its biodiversity.


This summit is set to be among the most important in its history given the urgency of arresting global biodiversity loss and the conference’s aim to produce biodiversity targets for the next ten years. As host, China has been vocal in its promotion of the concept of “ecological civilization” and has pledged to prioritize ecological restoration following decades of unprecedented economic growth.

Nu River in China's Yunnan Province, where there are 13 proposed dams

Photo by Green Watershed

Biodiversity Footprint of the Hydropower Industry

An important subtext to the meetings is the influential and growing role that Chinese state-owned enterprises play in infrastructure development outside of China and the scale of ecological impacts they have wrought. This has only accelerated since President Xi announced the Belt and Road Initiative, which has entailed trillions of dollars of investment into many ecologically sensitive sectors.

This is particularly true of the hydropower sector, where Chinese companies are estimated to account for 70% of the global market. Two companies—Powerchina Resources and China Three Gorges Corp.—account for over half of all dams under construction today.  

Inguri Dam, Georgia

Photo by Alex Bagirov

Dam Impacts on Biodiversity and Food Security

Hydropower dams have had a particularly significant impact on global biodiversity and the ecosystem services that it provides. Dams have been found to be a key culprit in the 84% loss of freshwater species experienced since 1970. 


Dams and associated infrastructure such as roads and transmission lines have taken a significant ecological toll on terrestrial biodiversity as well, both directly by submerging or fragmenting habitats, as well as indirectly by bringing people and human settlements into previously inaccessible areas. Dams’ impacts on wildlife and freshwater resources have also had a significant human cost. Declines in fish stocks, particularly downstream of dams, have impacted millions of river-dependent populations around the world and jeopardized a key source of protein for local diets.

Mekong Fish Catch

Photo by International Rivers

Ecological Civilization?

The focus on China as host of the Convention on Biological Diversity summit and its ambitious commitments to advance its vision of an “ecological civilization” represents a critical moment to reckon with a concerning trend: the increasing scale and severity of biodiversity impacts of these prominent Chinese state-owned enterprises in their hydropower investments.

Baker River Delta

Photo by Germán Poo-Caamaño

We must

Commit. Decide. Act.

for our future





Hover over a country & click on the project name to read more, or view the gallery below.

Protected areas are not spared from dam construction, including in UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Half of the 12 projects examined in this report would directly impact protected areas that harbor considerable biodiversity, including national parks, Ramsar sites, and even UNESCO World Heritage sites in the case of the Julius Nyerere dam in Tanzania, where Sinohydro has a major construction contract.

Companies should: 

1. Adopt an explicit policy prohibiting dams that are constructed in or have significant impacts on protected areas, including UNESCO World Heritage sites.

A growing number of dams are impacting critically endangered great ape populations.

Three of the projects examined would have significant, if not catastrophic, impacts on our closest living relatives. The most worrying example is that of the Batang Toru dam in North Sumatra, under construction by Sinohydro, which could precipitate the extinction of the recently discovered Tapanuli orangutan. The Koukoutamba dam in Guinea, also contracted by Sinohydro, would result in the deaths of over 1500 critically endangered Western chimpanzees.

Companies should: 

2. Adopt a policy prohibiting projects that will entail irreversible impacts on endangered species, particularly apes. Sinohydro should withdraw its involvement from Batang Toru and Koukoutamba dams immediately.

Dams planned on free-flowing rivers are of particular concern, including to biodiversity.

At least three of the projects examined are proposed on unobstructed, free-flowing rivers. Of greatest concern are plans by China Three Gorges to construct the Mong Ton dam on the Salween River in Myanmar.

Companies should: 

3. Forego projects proposed on a free-flowing river or the mainstem of a major river.

Significant human cost of biodiversity loss, particularly for indigenous peoples.

At least three of the projects reviewed entail impacts on indigenous peoples, most notably the São Manoel dam located adjacent to indigenous lands on the Teles Pires River in Brazil. São Manoel is partly owned and operated by China Three Gorges.

Companies should: 

4. Adopt and implement a requirement to secure the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of communities before becoming involved in projects that may impact indigenous peoples and their territories.

Pronounced impacts from the cumulative impacts of multiple dams on a river.

In Lao PDR, PowerChina acquired the rights to build and operate a cascade of seven dams on the Nam Ou River, a major tributary of the Mekong. This previously free-flowing river has since been converted into a series of reservoirs, with devastating impacts on the river’s ecology.

Companies should: 

5. Require that cumulative impact assessments are conducted for dams on rivers with multiple dams, and that robust mitigation measures are in place and implemented.

Company policies regarding biodiversity and due diligence fall well below international standards.


A recurring issue is that companies largely lack clear requirements regarding biodiversity, clearly defined “no go” policies, and due diligence processes to exclude problematic projects. This was particularly true of cases involving Sinohydro, where its involvement in the particularly problematic Batang Toru, Koukoutamba, and Julius Nyerere dams is indicative of a troubling pattern of complete disregard for biodiversity concerns.

Companies should: 

6. Adopt and implement due diligence procedures with clear bottom lines aligned to international standards, for example requiring no net biodiversity loss and requiring net biodiversity gain in projects impacting critical natural habitats.



Companies should:

7. For projects in operation by the company, engage in consultation with affected communities, civil society, government authorities and scientists to discuss ways to minimize impacts on both aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity, including through the adoption of environmental flows regimes aimed at preserving remaining biodiversity.

8. Diversify their portfolios toward less environmentally destructive energy options, such as low-impact solar and wind projects.​

This new report, Advancing Ecological Civilization? Chinese hydropower giants and their biodiversity footprints, contributes to ongoing discussions about the role of Chinese state-owned enterprises in helping fulfill China’s commitment to the concept of ecological civilization.

The report examines the track records of PowerChina Resources and China Three Gorges and their subsidiaries. It draws lessons from twelve project cases—six from each parent company—toward informing a series of recommendations of how these companies and, by extension, all dam-building companies, can ensure that they are aligned with China’s and global commitments to protecting biodiversity.

Citations are available in the report.

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Two hydropower giants account for over half of the world’s dams.


Hydropower threatens global biodiversity and our ability to survive.

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