Analysis & Reviews

Re-thinking China's Dam Rush

Rethinking China’s Dam Rush

Meandering along the upper reaches of the grand Yangtze River in China is an 82-million-acre national nature reserve designed to protect the 189 fish species in this biodiverse area. The boundaries of this reserve were considered “red lines” for environmental conservation.

To make way for a proposed hydropower station, the MEP redrew the ‘red lines’ for environmental conservation

But in 2009, in order to make way for a proposed hydropower station, the Chongqing municipal government persuaded the Ministry of Environmental Protection to redraw these lines.

Constructing a dam on the verge of previously protected areas will not only disrupt the breeding waters of vulnerable fish species, but perhaps more importantly also exemplify the already significant power of dam developers to ignore the ecological and social bottom lines.

>46,000 hydropower dams have sliced and diced virtually every river

Hydropower has played a significant role in powering China’s economic growth. More than 46,000 hydropower dams have sliced and diced virtually every river in this vast country. Like bamboo sprouts after the rain, as China’s hydropower dams grow in number, in height, and in capacity, so do their environmental and social consequences.

Concerns about the dam building rush led a group of Chinese environmental NGOs to author The “Last Report” on China’s Rivers, a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s hydropower development and the state of its rivers drawing on ten years of research from mainly civil society groups working in the basins.

Report authors encourage a rethinking of clean energy development

The report recognizes broader ecological and economic values of Chinese rivers beyond power generation and advocates an urgent need for effective ecological “red lines” in new conservation legislation. The authors also encourage a rethinking of clean energy development in favor of truly renewable sources—wind and solar—with a smaller ecological footprint.

 

Identify the Consequences

In the 12th Five-Year Plan the central government aims to increase hydropower generation from today’s 280 GW to 430 GW by 2020. Along the path of achieving hydropower supremacy, China’s dams have already created a host of social and environmental issues.

The report lists four major concerns:

1. Resettlement Challenges

To date the 23 million people who were relocated for dam construction have been poorly compensated and local governments have often ignored their social and economic needs. Consequently, 8 million of the previously resettled are still living below the national poverty line—making up one-third of China’s total poverty population. Resettlement disproportionately affects the livelihood and culture of ethnic minority groups in southwest China.

2. Ecosystem Damage

Hydropower stations have cut free flowing rivers; blocked fish passages, sediments and nutrient flows; and altered freshwater ecosystems. On the Yangtze River, dams contributed to the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin, and led to a whopping 97 percent decrease of carp population in the river, according to the report authors. These dams have also created massive reservoirs that submerge valuable arable land and forests and have limited downstream water and nutrient flows, hurting agriculture and fish species in the lower reaches.

3. Earthquake Risks

The majority of the existing and planned dams in southwest China are located in seismic zones. Even if dams and their reservoirs are not the direct triggering factors of earthquakes, the hydropower stations, their construction crews, the associated infrastructure, and surrounding communities are vulnerable to significant harm during earthquakes.

4. Poor Life Cycle Management

About half of the existing dams are poorly constructed or insufficiently maintained. Currently, dam developers shoulder limited liability in maintenance, and are rarely held accountable should disaster occur.

Tracing the Causes

According to the report authors, a number of factors have contributed to the unnecessary ecological and social price paid for hydropower development.

The foremost is the lack of comprehensive river basin planning. Hydropower projects not only affect river ecosystems, but also influence navigation, irrigation, and water supply in the entire basin. Balancing development and conservation, mainstreams and tributaries, upstream and downstream, and the impact on neighboring basins requires integrated planning that pull all stakeholders together. The lack of such a holistic view has led to the overexploitation of river resources by hydropower developers at the price of fragile ecosystems, valuable species, and local communities.

lack of comprehensive river basin planning & public participation plus weak oversight regulations have meant that …

… project construction begins prior to government approval

A second contributor to the uncontrolled “dam rush” is the lack of public participation. Public consultation processes, when they happen, have been superficial and pro forma. Experts, citizens, and civil society groups are not only poorly informed with little access to environmental impact assessments and knowledge of the approval processes, but they also are given few opportunities to express their opinions.

Furthermore, existing oversight regulations are weak, in that they allow project construction to begin prior to government approval. The only requirement developers are obligated to demonstrate prior to construction is that the site is equipped with basic infrastructure (water, electricity, and roads).

Local, growth-prioritizing governments rarely consider long-term social and ecological consequences of these projects. Even when the project’s impact is found unacceptable, central or local authorities rarely have the incentive or political will to terminate construction that is already underway.

hydropower should no longer be the dominant path towards low-carbon development

Finally, given the rapid growth of wind and solar power in China, these truly renewable energy sources that have a much smaller water footprint should become the dominant force in optimizing China’s energy structure, and help tame hydropower development to a rational and sustainable speed.

The swift expansion of wind and solar capacity has exponentially surpassed previous national targets, which ought to be accurately reflected in future planning, argue the authors. Ultimately they wish to remind policymakers that hydropower should no longer be the dominant path towards low-carbon development. As our understanding and options grow, “the more the better” should no longer be the slogan for hydropower development.

Reevaluating the True Costs

Apart from causing tremendous social and ecological consequences, the current “dam rush” in southwest China is also fostering energy- and pollution-intensive industries such as aluminum and steel production—a clear contradiction to many policy makers’ chant that hydropower is clean and green.

As daunting challenges in migrant resettlement, environmental conservation, disaster reduction, and life cycle management increase, and alternative and sustainable energy forms mature, a comprehensive reevaluation of the true cost and benefit of hydropower development is a necessity and a responsibility for the government before its 13th Five-Year Plan.

Equally important as a reassessment of dam costs will be creating an open, transparent decision-making process that ensures only scientifically and ecologically sound hydropower projects go forward.

Viewing free-flowing rivers only as a resource for energy generation will lead China to a new environmental catastrophe …

… a waterpocalypse

In the wake of “airpocalypses” in many China’s cities, the Chinese central government and citizens are starting to value clean air and to demand new policies, costs, and accountability. The “Last Report” is a call to value another resource that was previously taken for granted—water.

Viewing free-flowing rivers only as a resource for energy generation will lead the country to a new environmental catastrophe, a “waterpocalypse” if you will. As the authors fight to keep the boundaries surrounding the Upper Yangtze Rare and Endemic Fish Reserve, they are also reminding us of the ecological and social red lines that are too fragile yet too important to be crossed by the mighty force of economic development.


Further Reading

  • China Hydro: Tough Weather Ahead - Could a shift in weather patterns mean that droughts in the normally water-rich South are here to stay? Could this derail China’s aggressive hydro expansion in Yunnan & Sichuan? Debra Tan expands
  • Dams in Earthquake Zones - China’s urgent need for clean energy means that dams may be built in seismic zones. But  with an increasing number & severity of earthquakes on the Tibetan plateau, what does this mean for China’s hydro plans?
  • Water Risk & National Security - With the China’s largest surface freshwater reserves, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau glaciers shrinking by 15% (an area equivalent to 11.5 “Singapores’), we review US military views on how climate change impacts national security & China’s current stance 
  • Water: Shaping China’s Food & Energy Choices - Debra talks about key issues & new trends surfacing from the Fortune Global Forum roundtable and why she thinks the 12FYP Strategic Emerging Industries are the real Magnificent Seven
Luan Dong

About Luan Dong

Luan Dong is a Research Assistant at the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, facilitating the program’s many initiatives on water-energy nexus, U.S.-China energy and climate cooperation, and environmental impact of Chinese investment overseas. Prior to the Wilson Center, he interned at a number of environmental organizations in Beijing and Washington, D.C., including the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, the Nature Conservancy, and Greenpeace. Luan Dong received his Master’s Degree in International Affairs from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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Jennifer Turner

About Jennifer Turner

Dr. Jennifer Turner has been the director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center for 14 years where she creates meetings, exchanges and publications focusing on a variety of energy and environmental challenges facing China, particularly on water, energy and climate challenges, as well as environmental nongovernmental organizations, environmental journalism, and environmental governance in China. Jennifer also serves as editor of the Wilson Center’s journal, the China Environment Series, which is distributed to over 5,000 environmental practitioners around the world who work on China’s energy and environmental issues. She received a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Comparative Politics in 1997 from Indiana University, Bloomington. Her dissertation examined local government innovation in implementing water policies in the China. Her research focuses heavily on water and environmental activism in China.

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