What it’s like to live next to China’s belt and road project

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China insists that BRI projects are rigorously screened for environmental impact and should benefit people

Much has been written about China’s multi-billion dollar Belt and Road Initiative. Economists have discussed debt dynamics. Political scientists have analyzed how it fits into the rising power’s geopolitical strategy. And climate experts have condemned the emissions China is adding to the atmosphere by supporting fossil fuel projects.

Rarely do we hear from people whose lives are directly affected by the program. Earlier this year, a coalition of activist groups, Belt and Road Through My Village, published a compilation of interviews with around 100 local residents who live near BRI projects in five Asian countries.

It was an opportunity for them to express their concerns and the list is long: disputes over land use rights, water and air pollution, deforestation and loss of indigenous culture are just some of the issues they have raised. The stories are a powerful reminder of governments and investors to consider the environmental and social impact of the BRI.

42-year-old Muhammad Asif worked at the Sahiwal coal-fired power station, a BRI project that was being built on 690 hectares of fertile land between Karachi and Lahore, the two largest cities in Pakistan. The plant has created more than 3,000 jobs and has been cited as an example of the good the BRI can do.

But Asif is concerned about the damage the plant is doing to both land and air. “All of this development work has its cost,” he says in the book. Contaminated water from the plant is released into a nearby canal that is used to water plants and is drunk by cattle. “We fear that this contaminated water is making our cattle sick and rendering our land sterile, or at least contaminating the products. Air pollution is also becoming a problem as people suffer from nasal, skin and lung diseases,” he says.

China insists that BRI projects are rigorously screened for environmental impact and benefit people in these areas. In practice, however, it has not taken any concrete steps to limit funding for high-carbon practices. Local communities have also complained about a lack of transparency about the projects.

That is slowly changing as environmental concerns become a greater investment risk. In Myanmar, China Power Investment Corp. Co-developed Myitsone hydropower plant worth $ 3.6 billion has stalled since 2011 after major protests over the lack of an adequate environmental assessment. The license for a $ 2 billion coal-fired power plant in Lamu was canceled by a tribunal in Kenya because the public was not consulted. A China-funded dam under construction on the Indonesian island of Sumatra has also faced violent protests because it poses a serious threat to endangered orangutans.

If countries step up their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, more governments are expected to turn away from coal and other environmentally harmful projects.

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For example, at the Climate Ambition Summit earlier this month, Pakistan announced that it would stop building coal-fired power plants. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is at the heart of the BRI, has long been criticized for increasing Pakistan’s dependence on coal. “If coal power now loses priority within the CPEC, it could happen across the BRI program as well,” said Simon Nicholas, an analyst at the Institute for Energy and Financial Analysis.

Even if there is growing awareness in China that it has to deal with such risks, the government has so far only issued non-binding recommendations for improving the environmental standards of its foreign investments.

The BRI International Green Development Coalition, overseen by China’s Ministry of the Environment, proposed a color-coded classification mechanism this month to better assess environmental risk assessments. The system would be based on three main factors: preventing pollution, mitigating climate change and conserving biodiversity. Projects that cause “significant and irreversible” damage would require stricter government oversight, stricter funding conditions and stricter funding status disclosure requirements.

That sounds like a step in the right direction, but the suggestion is just a suggestion. More government agencies and state banks would have to go on board so that it can be implemented.

What is missing are laws that require environmental and social ratings for every overseas project the BRI plans to invest in, according to Wang Xiaojun, founder of People of Asia for Climate Solutions, a Manila-based non-governmental organization that co-published the book. Policy makers need to understand that local concerns are real and are increasingly becoming an important factor in any project’s success, he says.

One of the official goals of the BRI is to improve communication between people. That is “the most difficult, but also the most urgent,” says Wang. “Hearing people instead of excluding them from the dialogue should be the first step in achieving this goal.”

(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and published from a syndicated feed.)

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