Ecuador: Is Coca Codo Sinclair a Bellwether for China in Latin America?

by Julie Radomski*

Mega project Coca Codo Sinclair inaugurates its new tunnel / Carlos Rodriguez / Agenda de Noticias ANDES / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

Ecuador’s Coca Codo Sinclair hydroelectric project – celebrated as a triumph of then-President Rafael Correa’s Revolución Ciudadana and a harbinger of the promise of South-South Cooperation when inaugurated in November 2016 – today appears to be a lightning rod for debate around China’s preferred form of international cooperation. The project was emblematic of the new relationship between Latin American countries and development finance’s new regional leaders, Chinese policy banks. Five years into its operations, Coca Codo is riddled with uncertainties and dramas at local, national, and global scales. 

  • The 1500 Mw project consists of a diversion dam; 24.8 km of tunnel to channel water under the Andean foothills; a compensation reservoir; pipes dropping the water 620 meters; and an eight-turbine powerhouse. It supplies Ecuadorians with 30 percent of their electricity, helping to edge out expensive and fossil fuel-driven thermoelectricity.

The project was a crowning jewel of efforts since the mid-2000s by Chinese policy banks – the China Development Bank and China Export-Import Bank – to provide Latin American countries with billions of dollars in loans, the majority for large infrastructure projects of the variety once financed by multilateral development lenders like the World Bank. Indeed, between 2005 and 2018, the total lending to the region by these two Chinese banks was greater than that of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank combined. Coca Codo was financed by a 2010 loan from the China Export-Import Bank and constructed by Chinese state company Sinohydro.

  • However, since 2015 lending has trended steeply downwards, and since 2019 Chinese policy banks have provided no new loans to Latin American countries or state-owned enterprises. While this by no means indicates a downgrading of China-Latin America relations, the nature of this political and economic relationship is no longer oriented around multibillion-dollar state-to-state infrastructure lending like that which made Coca Codo Sinclair possible. This is likely due, at least in part, to the increased hesitancy on the part of Chinese lenders following political controversies surrounding such projects.

The impacts of the projects of this period are still very much an ongoing and controversial issue for countries like Ecuador.

  • Although vital in providing Ecuadorians inexpensive and emissions-friendly electricity, to this day the project has not been fully turned over to the Ecuadorian government, primarily because its distributors (snail-shaped pipes that channel water to each of the powerhouse’s eight turbines) exhibit thousands of fissures that Sinohydro has been unable to repair despite years and millions spent trying. New fissures continue to emerge that experts say indicate “imminent danger” of equipment failure, or even collapse.
  • The diversion dam is also in danger of collapse due to a rare and catastrophic process of “headward” erosion (erosión regresiva o remontante) along the Coca River. The erosion, resulting from the collapse of the famed 150-meter San Rafael waterfall in February 2020, has so far caused two major oil spills, the loss of houses and land, and the repeated destruction of a major roadway connecting the Amazonian region to Ecuador’s capital. The Ecuadorian state power company, CELEC-EP, is investing millions in new infrastructure to attempt to contain the erosion before it reaches the dam. They are also studying the possibility of building an entirely new dam that could be reconnected to the existing powerplant.

The scientific community is debating the extent to which the dam itself may have contributed to the disastrous erosion. Lack of rigorous environmental assessments and monitoring mean that there may never be definitive evidence either exonerating the dam or proving its guilt in the current social, economic, and environmental crisis. There is, however, broad agreement that, given the instability of the Coca River basin, the dam should not have been constructed at the current location and scale due to environmental risks.

Critics of Chinese global economic expansion have seized on Coca Codo Sinclair as a symbol of the danger of China’s influence in Latin America. Other observers argue that the project’s downsides are a result of national institutional failures, irrespective of the “Chineseness” of its finance, engineering, and construction. Either way, recent patterns in Chinese lending indicate that the country’s decisionmakers no longer see this type of project as the basis of win-win development or mutual cooperation. It appears that environmentally sensitive, politically polarizing mega-infrastructure will not be the face of China-Latin America cooperation going forward. Regardless, Ecuadorians are faced with the return of expensive and unreliable electricity, an irrevocably altered Amazonian River basin, and about $3 billion at risk of being carried away by the river.

May 6, 2022

*Julie Radomski is a PhD Candidate and Fulbright-Hays Fellow at American University specializing in development studies.

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