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North Sumatra, Indonesia


Yunnan, China


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

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