Excessive damming of rivers in southwest China has not only resulted in massive environmental damage, it may also be responsible for the increasing frequency of earthquakes. Meanwhile, a glut of hydropower stations has resulted in energy overcapacity. So why are projects still being approved? NewsChina investigates
Over the past eight years, villagers living by the Jinsha River in the upper reaches of the Yangtze, near Hutiaoxia (known in English as “Tiger Leaping Gorge”), have been haunted by uncertainty. While a major project to dam the gorge has been suspended thanks to protests from environmentalists and specialists in various sectors, no-one is certain if the project has been permanently canceled – the villagers have no idea whether or not their homes have been saved from the threat of flooding.
“The debate on whether or not to build the dam has been dragging on for almost a decade, and in Shigu town where my family lives, most of the 10,000 locals, like me, are against the project,” Yang Xueqin, a stocky man in his early fifties told NewsChina in early May. “We got our way in the previous round of debate. But we now see signs that the project will be re-launched. We are very worried,” he added.
For Yang Xueqin and other residents in the region, the development of the Jinsha River, a plan initiated in the mid-2000s by hydropower companies and the provincial government, is a sword of Damocles above their heads.
The “signs” Yang refers to are in the newly issued “National 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015) for Energy Development,” which emphasizes the “active development” of hydropower projects, as well as other clean energy resources.
According to the plan, hydropower construction along the middle and lower streams of the Jinsha, Lancang (Mekong), Yalong and Dadu rivers, the upper reaches of the Yellow River and the middle sections of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) and Nu (Salween) rivers, will press ahead with renewed enthusiasm. Li Bo, director of the environmental group Friends of Nature (FON), said: “The plan, if implemented, would mark a big step backward for the efforts made by environmental organizations over the past decade.”
To develop clean energy and cut carbon emissions, China aims to raise the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy consumption to 15 percent by 2020, up from 9.4 percent in 2011. Hydropower is expected to make up more than half of this contribution. By the end of 2012, China’s total installed hydropower capacity accounted for 250 gigawatts, already ranking top in the world.
The new energy plan is regarded as an official commitment to speeding up construction of dams between 2011 and 2015, after a lapse following the completion of the main body of the controversial Three Gorges Dam project in 2006.
At the local level, however, dam construction and hydropower projects have never stopped.
The middle sections of the Jinsha River cover 564 kilometers between Shigu town in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, and Yabijiang in Panzhihua city of Sichuan Province. According to the initial middle Jinsha River development plan, eight terraced hydropower stations are to be built along the section, starting with Longpan in Tiger Leaping Gorge, followed up by Liangjiaren, Ahai, Liyuan, Jin’anqiao, Longkaikou, Ludila and Guanyinyan. The total investment would reach 150 billion yuan (US$24.5bn), and the total installation capacity would reach 21 gigawatts, equal to that of the Three Gorges Dam.
Over the past decade, campaigns opposing dam construction on the Jinsha and Nu rivers have attracted global attention. In 2004, the Chinese government floated initial proposals for damming projects on the Jinsha River. The plan also included Tiger Leaping Gorge as an essential part of the development of a vast area known as “Three Rivers Flowing Abreast” in Yunnan, a region on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. Due to protests from environmentalists and scientists, the then Premier Wen Jiabao ordered the suspension of the project, and the Yunnan provincial government finally shelved the plan in 2007. However, NewsChina has learned that aside from the main reservoir at Longpan, construction of seven other dams in the same project, lying just outside the boundaries of the world heritage site, had either begun or had been completed, even though some of them had not been approved by the State Council.
Projects on other rivers have been springing up all over the country, particularly in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces (see “Stemming the Tide,” NewsChina, April 2011). In mid-May, amid concern from scientists over the project’s geographic and ecological impact, the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) granted approval to the construction of what will become the country’s biggest hydroelectric dam – the Shuangjiangkou project – on the Dadu River, a tributary of the Yangtze in Sichuan Province. Upon completion, this dam, with a height of 314 meters (1,030 feet), would dwarf the 185-meter Three Gorges Dam.
The project, according to the MEP, would have a negative impact on rare flora and fish species, and would also affect local nature reserves. In 2011, Yuan Guoqing from the Chengdu Geotechnical Engineering Investigation Design Institute published an article entitled “Study on the Slope Stability of the Shuangjiangkou Hydropower Station” in the Sichuan Geological Journal, claiming that the large number of precariously balanced rocks and stones on the slopes over the project site could potentially pose a large threat to the construction of the dam.
Now, along the rivers of southwest China, terraced hydropower stations are a common sight. In Sichuan Province, for instance, there are a total of 7,000 dams either under construction or completed – there are so far over 365 reservoirs and dams being constructed along the 1,000 kilometer course of the Dadu River alone. These cascading reservoirs stimy the natural flow of the Dadu River, leaving the riverbed dry in many sections.
Wang Yongchen, 58, founder of Green Earth Volunteer, an environmental NGO in Beijing, has been visiting six major rivers – the Min, Dadu, Yalong, Jinsha, Mekong and the Nu – once a year for the past eight years, to observe change.
In late April, after finishing her eighth tour along these major rivers, Wang told NewsChina: “New dams are being constructed non-stop on all these rivers, mostly in seismically unstable regions.”
According to Wang, she and other team members have personally witnessed landslides on the slopes surrounding several dam projects, “At Maji, one of the four hydropower plants on the Nu river and part of the hydropower construction spree in the 12th Five Year Plan, the dam is to be built on a mountain slope composed of shale rocks, which are soft and unstable,” Wang continued. “Unstable geographical locations have caused the deaths of many people due to collapses or landslides.”
One particularly pressing concern is that the reservoirs might induce earthquakes.
Globally, scientists believe that there have been over 100 earthquakes triggered by reservoirs – a phenomenon known as Reservoir-Induced Seismicity (RIS). After the Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 that measured 8.0 on the Richter scale, experts in both domestic and international academic circles claimed that the Zipingpu Dam, constructed on the Longmenshan Fault, had helped trigger the quake.
“I cannot say there is direct proof that the Zipingpu Reservoir triggered the earthquake,” Liu Shukun, 73, a professor at the China Water Resources and Hydropower Institute, told NewsChina. “But what has been proven is that the construction of dams can impact geology.”
Geologists Wang Huilin and Zhang Xiaodong analyzed the data they collected while observing the reservoir in question between 2004 and 2008, and concluded in an article published in Acta Seismologica Sinica in September 2012 that “water storage had enhanced seismic activity in the reservoir area and increased the activity of small earthquakes of magnitudes up to two on the Richter scale.”
“We might need further study to pinpoint the cause of the Wenchuan earthquake,” said Liu Shukun. “But at least now we should be more cautious about building hydropower stations in seismic fault areas.”
In early May, Li Yonggang, an earthquake expert from the University of Southern California, said that the 7.0-magnitude earthquake along the Longmenshan Fault at Ya’an, Sichuan Province in late April had a similar seismic pattern to the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008. He predicted more earthquakes in Sichuan and Yunnan in the not-too-distant future.
Unfortunately, there are already thousands of dams in these two provinces.
“In fact, the severe environmental impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the local ecology has appeared in the past few years,” Liu Shukun told NewsChina. “We should not embark on any more dam projects before we conduct sufficient research and assessment.”
Clean and Cheap?
From the very beginning, there has been heated debate between dam construction supporters, such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), and those opposed to dam construction, such as environmentalists and some scientists. Advocates claim that the foremost advantages of hydropower are that it is clean, renewable energy, costing only 25 percent of the equivalent thermal power.
But the pro-dam camp’s claims are questioned by experts and the public.
Aside from the damage done to aquatic ecosystems, they argue high levels of greenhouse gases are emitted throughout the construction of dams, and in the operation of hydropower stations.
Dam projects require the construction of infrastructure such as roads, often resulting in deforestation and the consumption of large quantities of cement and steel. When the reservoir is filled, the submerged plants and trees will rot, releasing potentially harmful biogases. Decades later, when the dam is eventually decommissioned, explosives will likely be used, potentially resulting in even more environmental damage.
“We cannot say hydropower is clean energy, since each case requires scientific evaluation,” said Liu Shukun, the senior hydropower expert.
“Now, the biggest problem facing our country’s hydroelectricity development is at the most basic theoretical level. Our education has taught us the abundant economic benefits of hydropower, while ignoring the related environmental impact,” said Liu. He said that China’s enthusiasm for dams is based on the energy policy of the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
Lü Zhi, founder of the Shan Shui Conservation Center and professor of conservation biology at Peking University, said the building of large dams in China is done without comprehensive, long-term planning, and water resources are used irrationally. “Some hydropower stations have a ‘grave effect’ on biodiversity and freshwater ecosystems and, taken as a whole, are not necessarily beneficial. Large dams will actually impact our ability to adapt to climate change,” said Lü.
China’s feed-in tariff on hydroelectricity is mostly between 0.2 and 0.3 yuan (3 to 5 US cents) per KWH, but the on-grid price of thermal or nuclear power is much higher. Water, the cheapest resource for power generation in the short term, can bring investors returns as high as 36 percent, perhaps the main reason behind the current dam construction spree.
According to statistics obtained by China Central Television (CCTV), in 2011, there were a total of 140 GW hydropower installations under construction across the country, with a combined capacity eight times that of the Three Gorges project.
The low cost of hydropower projects, according to Liu Zhi, a researcher with The Transition Institute, a consultancy firm based in Beijing, is due to two factors: the low cost of relocating local residents, and the low cost of “clearing the ground,” a euphemism for ecological destruction.
In most cases, large dam projects are seen by local governments as an important opportunity to increase local revenue, meaning that State-owned power companies can count on the support of these authorities.
Local populations displaced by dam construction have no right to negotiate with developers, and are ordered to relocate by the government, usually with very little compensation.
“Power generated by hydropower projects is transmitted to energy-consuming manufacturing hubs,” Liu Zhi told NewsChina. According to Liu, in order to acquire an abundance of cheap hydroelectricity, heavy-industry players, such as those in the mining and metallurgy sectors, are keen to invest in dam construction, which only serves to worsen pollution.
“Innumerable mining companies and other high energy-consuming projects are seen operating in Yunnan and Sichuan as a result of the oversupply of hydropower,” said Wang Yongchen. “In some areas, we saw the ridiculous phenomenon of private hydropower providers being ordered by the local government to temporarily turn off their turbines due to power overcapacity.”
The costs of human relocation and ecological compensation have forced most developed countries to scale back their plans for new dams. Yet in China, the government-backed dam construction spree continues unabated. “Hydropower development in the country is far from a market-oriented undertaking, as the developers play the combined role of local governments and hydropower company,” Liu Zhi told NewsChina.
“Taking into account elements such as relocation costs and ecological destruction, among others, the hydropower price may not be cheaper than thermal power or other forms of energy,” claimed Han Xiuji, a sociologist from Beijing University of Technology.
Over 75 percent of China’s total water resources are in the country’s southwest, and, according to the latest National Renewable Energy Plan, the country’s total hydropower capacity would increase to 420 GW by 2020. The upcoming decade is expected to see a continuing surge of hydropower projects.
“If we are bent on having more dams, we should at least stop building terraced hydropower stations that segment and destroy entire rivers,” Professor Liu Shukun told NewsChina. “Enough distance should be left between the dams for the sake of preserving the habitat of fish, and other ecological resources.”
Weng Lida, former head of the Bureau of Yangtze River Water Resources Protection, once said that comprehensive planning for each individual watershed is a prerequisite to the exploration of large rivers, and the hydropower development plan should be in line with the overall watershed plan.
“However, we do not yet have an advanced watershed planning system. For the Jinsha River, though it has been overexploited, I still hope 50 percent of the river’s course will remain free of dams, and that the natural river flow will be guaranteed for the sake of protection of the overall environment,” said Liu Shukun.
Most farmers in Shigu by the banks of the Jinsha River have lived there for generations, living off the land’s fertile soil and sufficient natural resources. However, this could all soon come to an end as a result of the country’s hydropower-focused energy development plan.
“Although the Diqing Prefecture government promised in 2006 that it would not dam Tiger Leaping Gorge as long as the majority of local people disagreed with the project, we know we have no way to negotiate if the project is locked in by official decisions,” said Yang Xueqin. According to Yang, if the reservoir is built and begins to store water, his home, along with those of 100,000 other people, could be submerged.
“New dams are being constructed non-stop on all these rivers, mostly in seismically unstable regions.”
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