Can emerging ME states learn from Chinese over ambition?

By Timon Singh on

Three Gorges DamThree Gorges Dam

Back in 2007, Communist Party officials gave a stark insight into the potentially disastrous consequences of China’s gigantic Three Gorges Dam project. For more than a decade China had promoted the world’s biggest hydro-electric project as the best way to end centuries of floods along the basin of the Yangtze and to provide energy to fuel the country’s booming economy.

But during, and before, initial stages of development the Chinese government ignored critics who claimed the dam would be both an ecological and economical catastrophe. As well as the huge strain the dam has put on the nation’s economic resources, governments forums have listed a host of threats such as conflicts over land shortages, ecological deterioration as a result of irrational development and, especially, erosion and landslides on steep hills around the dam. Other authorities have also raised concerns over algae bloom downstream from the Three Gorges and a deterioration in aquatic life.

With such concerns over whether the benefits to come from the dam will ever outweigh the costs, is there something emerging economies in the Middle East can learn from the perhaps overambitious Three Gorges Dam?

One only has to look at Turkey – a nation with growing economic and political aspirations, hoping to join the EU within the next few years – for an example of how large infrastructure projects, intended to give long-term ecological and economical benefits, can soon become a burden on the government.

Three Gorges Dam, China Dam, Dam

In July this year Turkey announced plans to resume a controversial US$1.5 dam project in the face of environmental protests that it would displace thousands of people, destroy habitats and drown priceless archaeological treasures. First planned in the 1980s, the Ilisu hydroelectric dam has had to deal with the withdrawal of British, German, Swiss and Austrian finance because fears about the dam’s environmental and social impact had not been addressed.

Turkey’s government argues the dam – which is planned to generate 1,200MW of electricity – is an essential part of the US$30 billion plan to bring economic prosperity to the south-east, long blighted by armed conflict between the army and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers party. The dam is now due for completion in 2013, but many officials believe the project has not seen the last of its troubles, with construction expected to be halted many times between now and the dam’s completion, on environmental and economic grounds.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, large construction projects focused on driving the economic development of the region forward have been put under extreme pressure, in large part due to the recession. In Dubai alone, around 53 percent of projects in its US$582 billion property portfolio have been suspended at some point since the financial crisis hit. Although environmental concerns have had little affect on development in this region, Arab states may do well to take heed of the problems faced by the Chinese government.

Almost all of the world’s emerging economies are now striving to become less dependent on energy and cash from overseas, and this means pumping huge amounts of capital into their own infrastructure. However, it is important for every nation to work within their own means, both economically and ecologically. The growing economies of the Middle East may look to China for much of their inspiration – and there is a lot of inspiration to be had – but the region must also learn from the mistakes made and try their best not move ahead of themselves with their ambitions. After all, another economic crisis could be just around the corner.

The accompanying infographic shows just how large the Three Gorges Dam project is, and how much it actually cost the Chinese government.

Can emerging ME states learn from Chinese over ambition?

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