Energy, Resources and Environment concentrator Sam Smith spent his summer in Beijing as an intern for International Rivers, a nonprofit organization advocating for the sustainable development of global water resources. Through his work with International Rivers’ China program, Sam researched and visited Chinese hydroelectric development projects while organizing local NGOs to promote indigenous rights and sustainable development.
Sam learned about the organization through a class at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) called “Water Resources and Development,” taught by Professor Wang Zhijian. He emailed an International Rivers representative to inquire about internships and soon found himself a member of the team. As a self-proclaimed “river kid” who grew up along the St. Croix in Minnesota, Sam shared with TSO his highly meaningful experience protecting rivers.
How did you become interested in water resource development in China?
My initial application to the HNC was predicated upon studying the environmental impacts and security issues around Chinese-built dams in Southeast Asia. Chinese hydropower became my key area of interest when I took a river cruise along the Salween River along the Thailand-Myanmar border and learned about the Myitsone Dam project, which was to be built there by a Chinese state-owned firm. The dam threatened the river ecosystem and therefore the livelihood of the local Karen population (an ethnic minority in the region), who have been fighting the central government for almost half a century. I wanted to learn more about large-scale dams and how they impact local communities, including their contribution to conflict situations.
What were your responsibilities?
My job was to educate Chinese firms and Chinese NGOs about the potential negative effects of hydroelectric power development, particularly dam projects. Day-to-day, I researched and translated Chinese environmental policies for my team. I also interviewed academics and activists about Chinese dam projects for the International Rivers blog. Most importantly, I helped to produce the latest version of the “Hydro-Scorecard,” which is a benchmarking report that assesses the environmental and social impacts of Chinese hydropower projects built all around the world. It will be published this fall.
Congratulations on such an accomplishment! Tell me more International Rivers’ vision.
Dam projects are becoming more significant as China expands its influence with policies like One Belt, One Road (now known as The Belt and Road Initiative), with adverse ecological impacts usually following right behind. China has built over 80,000 dams domestically, and as a result, half of China’s rivers have disappeared within the last three decades. Chinese firms are expanding with over 40 dam projects in places like Cambodia, Pakistan, and Africa, often to the detriment of the peoples living there. International Rivers’ goal is to work with indigenous populations and Chinese NGOs to minimize or eliminate the degradation. Some of our campaigns also focus on protecting remaining Chinese rivers, like the Yangtze River and the Yellow River. We try to encourage China to use best development practices when they expand abroad. I’ve learned a lot about issues with development through site visits.
The most notable visit was to a UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site in Chengdu, China called Dujiangyan, which is the world’s oldest operating hydrological system. It’s nearly 3,000 years old – it takes a fierce river, splits it into two, and uses the water to provide flood control and irrigation to the Chengdu Plain. Our work brought us to this site because there was an illegal dam built 300 meters away from the main feature of Dujiangyan. Corrupt local officials had built the dam to sell electricity back into the grid—illegally, of course. We were fighting to protect the integrity of Dujiangyan, so our local partners helped organize protests and worked with provincial- and national-level governments to get the dam removed. We recently found out this dam was totally dismantled in July after a long battle.
What was the most rewarding part of the internship?
This experience taught me what modern environmental and social activism looks like — it’s surprisingly decentralized, and we rely on social media and independent research to build momentum around issues. My bosses were impressively organized, coordinating on projects from offices located in Melbourne, Oakland, and Costa Rica respectively.
Did SAIS help you prepare for you work at International Rivers?
Of course! In January 2017, I went on the SAIS Frontiers in Energy, Science and Technology (FEST) research trip. Fellow SAIS students, SAIS faculty and I spent two weeks in Vietnam researching the effects of Chinese hydropower on the integrity of the Mekong River. This proved to be very effective during my time at International Rivers.
How will this internship impact your future career?
Hydropower will always remain one of my core interests. However, this internship made me realize I’m interested in analyzing the macro-level policy decisions the Chinese government make regarding energy development. I want to study how powerful institutions like governments and state-run firms impact the developing world.
Activists protest an illegal dam built upstream from the Dujiangyan UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage Site.