What You Can Do

Campaigns to stop dams or to reduce human and environmental impacts of dams make use of many different tactics. These tactics may include research, outreach to stakeholders, media work, a legal approach, policy advocacy, corporate campaigns, and peaceful protest. This section describes tactics that are specifically useful for addressing a dam built or financed by Chinese companies and financiers. The International Rivers publication "Dams, Rivers and Rights" provides more general information for dam-affected communities about dams and their impacts, and gives concrete ideas about how to challenge dams. It can be downloaded in several languages at internationalrivers.org/node/4156.

Chinese companies are now amongst the biggest dam builders in the world. What can people and groups do to influence Chinese overseas dam projects? In some ways, dealing with Chinese companies, financiers and government departments presents particular challenges. Within China, environmental protection and public consultation are still new ideas and regulations in these areas suffer from poor implementation. Overseas, many Chinese companies are relatively inexperienced in engaging with local communities and sharing information.

The Chinese government and companies are also resistant to the imposition of perceived western standards on overseas investment projects. More generally, Chinese actors have a strong memory of the humiliations their country suffered under Western and Japanese colonizers. For these reasons, blunt pressure tactics aimed at improving Chinese overseas dam-building practices may not work.

However in other ways, China is no different from other countries that have sought export-led growth.

Stung Atay Dam, Cambodia. Chinese construction workers posing for a photo at the site of the Stung Atay Dam (120 mW) in Cambodia.

Chinese investors have an interest in strong long-term relationships in foreign countries. They are interested in long-term stability, including peace and political and environmental sustainability. The Chinese government is eager to ensure that Chinese companies do not tarnish the country's reputation. Chinese companies want to be seen as modern, responsible, and international leading partners. Chinese civil society and media are also keen to hold companies and banks to account for their overseas activities.


Do your own research and find out who is developing, building, funding, and benefiting from the project. Chinese companies are usually engaged in a contractor's capacity, but if they are developing a project, they will have more responsibility and can be a bigger target in your campaign. Determine compliance with your own laws, as well as Chinese policies and guidelines. Academic institutions or international civil society organizations such as International Rivers may be able to organize independent research of a dam project.

Dams built by Chinese companies may not adequately address social and environmental impacts. Conduct your own pre-dam studies of the baseline social and environmental conditions. Identifying what might be lost when a dam is built may strengthen arguments for stopping or modifying a destructive dam. Researching pre-dam conditions can also form a baseline for making compensation demands. Simple maps of existing community resources that may be lost when the dam comes can be useful. More expensive field studies of biological diversity and freshwater impacts can be arranged through academic institutions or organizations. Consider inviting Chinese experts and research institutes to conduct studies and publish reports and findings in China.

Get copies of dam studies and review them. As aminimum standard of operation, Chinese companies should release summaries of environmental and social impact assessments of proposed dam projects. Laws of your country may place a higher standard on Chinese overseas dam projects. Contact Chinese companies' local countries offices for copies of the impact assessments.

Document violations of local laws and standards (video and photographs) and gather testimonials. Chinese companies want to be seen as responsible partners and often the headquarters or senior executive of Chinese dam companies will not tolerate violations and operational problems. Documentation of violations can be used in local media work as well as to substantiate your concerns and claims to Chinese stakeholders.


Building alliances is one of the most important parts of a campaign strategy. A strong connection with the local affected communities is critical. Be aware that in some cases Chinese dam companies may prefer to be engaged in direct communication with affected communities than work through civil society organizations. Strong local spokespersons and support for community organizing is particularly critical in ensuring that grievances and concerns will be taken seriously by Chinese institutions. For more guidance on community organizing, see International Rivers "Dams, Rivers and Rights" guide at internationalriv-ers.org/node/4156.


Over the past few years there has been increased pressure on Chinese companies to engage with communities and civil society in regions where they work. Contacting company representatives directly through a letter or visit may be an important way to get your message across.

Before you contact a company, review the "Who's Who" (Chapter 3) and "Policies" (Chapter 5) section of this guide to find out what social and environmental standards the company has adopted for its projects. Review local legal requirements and regulations, as well as Chinese standards. Find out what kinds of studies the company has done on the social and environmental impacts of the project. In your communications, make sure they understand your concerns as well as your awareness of relevant international, Chinese government and company standards. A sample letter to a Chinese company is included in Appendix 5

Chinese companies can be large and finding the right person with whom to voice your concerns can be challenging. While engineers or workers at the project site will have little authority in the dam project, they may be a good source of information. Locally-employed staff of Chinese companies, such as translators or community relations officials, may also be willing to share information. It is sometimes more effective to contact companies through the country manager located in China or the project manager at the local project office. Keep in mind that Chinese companies and banks are not used to receiving letters. The lack of response does not necessarily mean your concerns have not been taken seriously. Letters written to Chinese companies may be better received if they are phrased in a constructive manner and your demands are clear and substantiated. Letters should also be translated into Chinese.

Contacting the companies is most suitable if your objectives are to minimize the social and environmental harm from the projects, such as improving resettlement plans seeking to minimize environmental impacts from dam construction and operation, or seeking to re-open community consultation processes.


Often finance is the weakest link in dam projects because dams are a high-risk investment. Funders often decide which projects go forward, and which standards dams have to meet. Problems with Chinese dam projects should be brought to the attention of the banks providing financing to them. If a Chinese bank is considering a loan to support an overseas dam project, provide information to it about the dam's impacts and your concerns. However, if dam construction has already started, it may not be effective to target dam funders. While China Exim Bank policy provides an option for loan suspension for cases involving environmental and social issues, we are unaware of any instances of this ever occurring. Chinese banks rarely withdraw their support once the project loan is granted. Instead, strategies targeting the local government or finding legal recourse to suspend a project may be a more effective means to stopping or suspending the project if that is your objective.

In addition to China's Green Finance policies, some Chinese banks have their own social and environmental standards and should be reminded to uphold these standards. For example, China Exim Bank, which funds the majority of Chinese overseas dam projects, has adopted environmental and social standards for its projects (see Appendix 2). Review the "Green Finance" section in Chapter 5, become familiar with these standards, and refer to them in letters and media statements. If relevant, consider writing to China Exim Bank's President outlining violations of the Bank's policy.


Visiting China can help to increase awareness and support within China for your campaign. Meeting with environmental NGOs, media and academics in China can lead to useful campaign contacts, dissemination of your material in Chinese, and news stories. Chinese contacts may help you to follow-up with the company or make informal inquiries on your behalf to gather more information about the impact of your campaign. These meetings may also increase your understanding of how to work with Chinese actors and conduct advocacy within China. International Rivers and Chinese NGOs are available to assist you in identifying useful contacts.


Developing a successful campaign message is challenging most of the time, but messaging for Chinese stakeholders and targets can be extremely difficult. Be cautious in your rhetoric. Chinese companies and the Chinese government are particularly sensitive to anti-Chinese sentiments. Chinese companies and embassy officials are unlikely to engage with organizations that are seen as anti-China. Think about using existing precedents in your messaging. The suspension of Burma's Myitsone Dam and human rights abuses associated with Sudan's Merowe Dam have become case studies that many Chinese dam builders want to avoid. Messages incorporating references to global responsibility, international reputation and accountability are also effective.


Most Chinese dam-building companies are state-owned. But in recent years, the Chinese government has encouraged many state-owned companies to conduct partial public listings of its shares on the Chinese stock exchanges. Selling shares or going through an Initial Public Offering (IPO) opens opportunities for NGOs and concerned communities to raise concerns about the company. During an IPO, there is significant media attention on all aspects of company performance, as well as several opportunities for prospective shareholders and the public to ask questions to the senior executive. This is a good time to raise concerns about the companies' activities and risks to the companies' performance and compliance, including social and environmental risks. For an example of the types of activities in an IPO campaign, see International Rivers work during the Sinohydro IPO on page 42.


As noted above, the first and main strategy of your campaign should be to target your government (the approval authority), dam financier and the dam developer. The response we often hear from Chinese dam-building companies and Chinese embassy officials when answering questions about the responsibility of Chinese dam companies, is that China is building a hydropower project at the request of the host country government.

Other than the appropriate host government office, embassies are a direct and appropriate point of contact for groups concerned with Chinese dam projects overseas. The embassy staff will be concerned about any damage to China's reputation and be in a position to advise local Chinese companies of any political, social and environmental risks. Staff at the Chinese embassy will usually speak English as well your local language. The embassy's Economic Counselor supervises Chinese companies working overseas on dam projects. This is a good place to raise concerns about environmental impacts and the Chinese companies' handling of displacement issues, compensation and resettlement. While in our experience, local embassies are unlikely to provide an official response, your concerns are likely to be forwarded to officials in Beijing.

When contacting the Chinese embassy in your country, referencing local laws, standards and regulations that the Chinese company may have violated in addition to Chinese laws, standards and guidelines may help strengthen your case. Tell the embassy that Chinese companies should observe and abide by your country's laws, and if host country laws are weaker, that Chinese companies should apply the same standards at home and abroad.

Petitions or sign on letters can be helpful in getting the Chinese embassy to recognize widespread concern about a dam project. Getting national and international groups to sign on will demonstrate that your issues have broad public appeal. A strong coalition of local groups is likely to be better received because Chinese companies and institutions may see international groups as trying to undermine China's image. Copies of letters can also be sent to host country governments, dam companies, funders, and relevant United Nations bodies.

Organize a peaceful demonstration. The Chinese embassy in the host country may be a target for demonstrations. The Chinese government is very sensitive to criticism and damage to its reputation. Embassy staff may be hesitant to meet with civil society organizations and the demonstration is unlikely to lead to an official response. Nevertheless, peaceful demonstrations voicing concern over Chinese projects will draw the attention of the Chinese government and the media.

BOX 10: Partnering with Chinese NGOs

Zambezi River, Mozambique. These farmers would be displaced if the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam is built on the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

The Mphanda Nkuwa Dam (1,350 MW) is proposed for one of Africa's most dammed rivers, the Zambezi. Proponents hope Mphanda Nkuwa will help attract energy-intensive industries to Mozambique, but for the foreseeable future, much of its electricity will be exported to South Africa. Environmentalists have been opposed to the dam because it would undermine years of restoration work in the Zambezi delta, East Africa's richest wetland and a "Ramsar wetland of internationalimportance," which has been damaged by the mismanagement of the Cahora Bassa Dam, just over 70 kilometers upstream of Mphanda Nkuwa.

China Exim Bank expressed interest in financing the $2.9 billion project and the associated transmission lines when it was first announced in April 2006. With assistance and advice from the Chinese environmental group Friends of Nature, mozambique environmental NGOs lobbied China Exim Bank to with-hold their support for the project. Justiça Ambiental travelled to Shanghai and Beijing in 2007 in the hope of dissuading Chinese promoters of the scheme from proceeding with financing for the project. In 2010, Friends of Nature members conducted a study tour to mozambique to meet with local NGOs and to explore ways to further cooperate. Daniel Ribiero from Justiça ambiental told friends of Nature that Chinese NGOs can help raise awareness about the impacts of Chinese investments in Africa, help African NGOs find the right channels for dialogue, and assist African NGOs in understanding the relevant Chinese laws and regulations for their lobbying efforts.

As of July 2012, China Exim Bank's interest in the project appears to have stalled, with the remaining 80% of financing still required from private banks being arranged by Africa's Standard Bank. It was reported that China Exim Bank had not contacted Standard Bank to discuss its interest further.

Increasing understanding between Chinese and Burmese stakeholders: The Global Environmental Institute's Integrated Policy Package Project Activities in Burma

The Global Environmental Institute (GEL) is a Chinese environmental NGO working on research and policy issues associated with Chinese overseas investment. since 2011, GEI has been building stronger connections and developing joint activities with Burmese groups in Burma, where China is a major investor. GEI has held several Sino-Burma environment and development focused seminars. These seminars have been well attended by Chinese and Burmese government officials, entrepreneurs, scholars and civil society representatives. They provide a unique forum for participants to discuss the challenges China and Burmese governments face in the fields of environment and development, and related governance experiences.

An outcome of these seminars was a proposal for a clearing house to facilitate exchange of information and data for Chinese investors seeking to do business in Burma to address the difficulty of obtaining information about social, environmental and political risks.

Closer connections between Chinese and local civil society groups also present the opportunity to bring together decision-makers and key government advisors in the same room for frank discussions on sensitive topics and projects. Following the suspension of construction of the Myitsone Dam, GEI convened a closed-door meeting between Chinese and Burmese government officials, academics and NGO representatives to discuss the controversial hydropower project.

Joint field visits and fact-finding missions: Save the Rivers Coalition in Malaysia

Chinese NGOs can help and assist host country NGOs to investigate and find out more information about Chinese overseas investments.

Chinese NGO researchers have been assisting the Save the Rivers Coalition of Sarawak, Malaysia, in getting more information about the Chinese investors and contractors of mega-dam projects in Sarawak. Chinese finance and dam-building projects have been a major factor in helping these decades-delayed projects come to fruition.

Other Chinese NGOs have conducted study visits to lao PDR and Burma to investigate the impacts of large hydropower projects. The research reports were based on site visits, and meetings with local NGOs, community representatives, local media and Chinese companies. These reports have helped to increase awareness amongst Chinese NGOs of the impacts of Chinese overseas investments and make Chinese overseas investments an accessible topic for the Chinese media.

If there are violations of local laws, you might consider bringing forward legal action that includes the Chinese company as a respondent. Pro bono lawyers specializing in environment and human rights law may be able to advise you on community rights under host country law.


Alerting domestic, international and Chinese media about problems with Chinese dam projects may help to put pressure on the Chinese companies involved. Over the past few years, Chinese media have showed increasing interest in covering Chinese overseas dam projects. In some cases they have been able to conduct country visits and field trips. While not all stories are published due to sensitivities and censorship, there have been several important pieces published on controversial Chinese overseas dam projects in major Chinese press. Contacting the media may be particularly important if companies, government bureaus and funders do not respond to your concerns. Also think about the timing of your media work. If applicable, Annual General Meetings of shareholders, IPOs, approval processes, and large bilateral meetings between China and the host country may be opportune times to reach out to media.

Prepare media briefings with detailed information about the project and its impacts, gather testimonials and eyewitness reports, and take photos and videos. In your communications with the media, particularly with Chinese media, refer to relevant policies and guidelines that should be followed. Prepare op-ed pieces for local newspapers articulating your concerns to raise awareness. Work with international groups such as International Rivers and Chinese NGOs to publicize your concerns.


  • Xinhua and People's Daily are both major state-run media outlets.
  • Caixin and Southern Weekend are weekly magazines featuring in-depth investigative reporting.
  • chinadialogue is a non-for profit organization that features articles on the environment and sustain-ability issues from around the world. chinadialogue is a bilingual news service.


Contact United Nations Human Rights or Environmental Protection Bodies, if there are human rights abuses at a dam site. Yo u may wish to contact the UN Human Rights Council, another UN human rights body or a relevant UN appointed special rapporteur. For example, the UN Committee on Human Rights may dispatch a team of investigators to a dam site to investigate conditions. Chinese authorities and companies will be under great pressure to acknowledge any concerns raised by UN bodies. For information on how to engage with UN human rights bodies, such as sending a complaint of human rights abuses, see: www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/petitions.

If the dam will impact a cultural or natural site protected under the World Heritage Convention, you may wish to contact the World Heritage Committee. Each year, IUCN and ICOMOS prepare a state of conservation report for natural and cultural sites (respectively), which may recommend that particular sites be listed as heritage sites in danger by the World Heritage Committee. In the past, the threat of hydro-power dams on the outstanding universal values of a natural or cultural heritage site has been a reason for the international committee to place a spotlight on World Heritage sites. China is a member of the World Heritage Committee.


After a Memorandum of understanding is signed, before final contract or agreement is signed:

  • Research and present alternative options to the dam
  • Conduct research and identify key actors
  • Define campaign goals and objectives
  • Strengthen ties with communities around the project site, and allies at the national level and abroad
  • Collect information, generate reports and briefings
  • Contact dam-building company, funders and Chinese embassy
  • Visit China to build awareness and contacts

Project agreement signed:

  • Obtain copies of relevant project documents, e.g. EIA, SIA
  • Conduct media work
  • Consider legal options
  • Contact Chinese embassy, dam builder and funders
  • Conduct peaceful demonstrations
  • Consider outreach to Chinese media

During construction:

  • Monitor, research and record dam impacts
  • Conduct media work, invite and host field trips from national, international and Chinese media
  • Contact Chinese dam builder and funders with grievances
  • Contact UN bodies if human rights abuses or damage to World Heritage sites have occurred

During dam operation:

  • Continue media work and outreach to UN bodies if violations continue
  • Consider corporate campaigning to hold the Chinese dam builder and funders responsible for their impacts
  • Legal redress?