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Chinese soldiers work with construction equipment at the Zipingpu Dam in Dujiangyan of Sichuan province, China. The dam was damaged by the 7.9 earthquake that hit the province, causing serious cracks. Some 2,000 troops have been sent to stabilize it. - 


KAI RYSSDAL: Although rescue has largely turned to recovery in China, there is still a race against time -- and against water. Army troops have been dispatched to shore up nearly 400 dams damaged by the earthquake. Mother Nature's mostly to blame. But there are worries over human error, too. Marketplace's Scott Tong reports from Shanghai that China's increasingly exporting its dam-building expertise.

SCOTT TONG: Sichuan province is blessed with mountains and rivers, the key ingredients for hydropower. But it's also cursed for sitting on a major fault line.

Aviva Imhofe of the environmental group International Rivers says Chinese scientists warned Beijing eight years ago about the danger. Her broader criticism is of Chinese construction standards.

Aviva Imhofe: Sometimes the quality of the cement is not at the level that it's required to be. Contractors often cut corners to line their own pockets. It makes the structures a lot more vulnerable.

That quality question has plagued many of China's 22,000 dams. And this has now become a global issue, since Beijing is now exporting its services.

Imhofe: We are seeing a huge influx in massive dam projects around the world. There's a huge amount of capital from emerging economies to invest in these projects. And China has become, over the past five years, the world's largest dam builder.

Imhofe says a Chinese firm building a dam in Laos showed such shoddy erosion control standards it was fired. Still, organizations like the Asian Development Bank say in many cases hydropower is safe, and it's economically justified.

Countries that generate and export water-based power can earn valuable foreign reserves and lift millions out of poverty.

It's a contentious debate. Once again it's current as Chinese rescuers try to hold back the water.

In Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Follow Scott Tong at @tongscott