Oregon State University

China Study

Why study dams in China?

Regional distribution of dams (from WCD 2000) Lancang River

This project is investigating the potential impacts of hydropower development in the Nu (Salween) and Lancang (Mekong) Rivers of China through the integrated assessment of biophysical, socio-economic, and geopolitical outcomes. We are evaluating the role of dams as agents of change on the ecological, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of a community, using the geopolitical condition as an indication of the resiliency of the human system to accommodate those changes. To make such an evaluation, we first developed IDAM (Interdisciplinary Dam Assessment Model) as an interdisciplinary tool to a) increase transparency of and inform decisionmaking, and b) to research how people make decisions. General goals of the current project are to 1) promote an international and interdisciplinary research community, 2) apply the IDAM tool to investigate questions around how people make decisions 3) evaluate distribution of impacts for specific projects in the Nu and Lancang basins on cultural, geographical, and ecological communities.

In addition to the general development and application of the IDAM tool, our current analysis includes detailed inquiries into the effects of dams on social and environmental dynamics. For example, we have used event mapping to develop a chronosequence of conflict and cooperation for the purpose of identifying the drivers of conflict and change for the two river basins over time, both within and outside of China. This analysis also includes a mapping of conflict and change hotspots to evaluate the extent to which dams modify social and environmental dynamics over space. These analyses allow us to develop and analyze hypotheses stemming from several questions regarding hydropower development as an agent of change. Do geographical and cultural links to the river affect the degree of benefits or losses associated with dam construction based on organizational scales? Do drivers identified in Mekong River basin also drive the most profound changes in the Nu River? What are the critical links between environmental and social welfare and dynamics? 

A second inquiry explores scenarios for building dams that minimize their negative impacts on social and environmental quality.  This inquiry addresses a second set of questions regarding dams as agents of change, and leads to understanding and recommendation for informing future hydropower development and management.   What scenarios allow the greatest potential for mitigating policies and environmental changes (e.g. climate variability) to result in a future different than that predicted by history-based scenarios?  What is the relative scale of cumulative effects for many small, decentralized hydropower development relative to large, mainstem projects? How does relocation induce group-identity conflicts (e.g. ethnic clashes)? Do changes in local resource availability result in deprivation conflicts (e.g. civil strife and insurgency)?

A third inquiry targets improving understanding on decisionmaking around dams. For these analyses, we are applying the IDAM tool, using the data collected in the Nu and Lancang basins, in a decisiontheater format with representatives of dam building and regulating agencies, as well as environmental and social NGOs, in China and internationally. Through a series of survey questions throughout the decision theater, we are investigating how information, individual values, and views on risk influence decisionmaking. For example, we ask:  How does informing the stakeholders of impact magnitude influence their prioritization of the impacts?  How are different design alternatives ranked by different stakeholders? What decision rules are stakeholders using to assign ranking of alternatives? What alternatives are indistinguishable in terms of views on risk? and salience? How much change in salience of attribute performance does it take to shift the ranking of alternatives?

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