Tuesday, 22 March 2011
By Rachel Beitarie, Circle of Blue
For photographs, maps and other related articles from Choke Point:
CHENGDU, China—Even in China, where power plants, coal mines,
water-transport networks, and other big tools of industrialization are
built at astonishing scale and with surprising speed, the hydropower dam
construction program in Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet, and other southwest
provinces has no equal in China, or anywhere else for that matter.
Here in Suijiang County—a remote and mountainous region on the border
between Sichuan and Yunnan provinces—the immense scope of the most
aggressive dam-building program in history is immediately apparent. Near
the county's center, an army of men and equipment is building the
Xiangjiaba Dam, a wall of concrete and steel that is 909 meters (2,982
feet) long and 161 meters (528 feet) high.
When completed in 2015, the dam will house eight turbines capable of
generating just over 6.4 gigawatts. It will be the fourth-largest
hydropower plant in China and one of the 20 largest power plants of any
kind in the world, according to industry figures.
Immense as it is, the Xiangjiaba Dam is just one of a dozen hydropower
projects of similar scale in what Chinese engineers call a "cascade" of
electricity-generating projects that have been approved for the Jinsha
River—a 2,300-kilometer section of the Yangtze River in Sichuan
Province. An even larger project, the 278-meter-tall (911-foot) Xiluodo
Dam, is nearing completion downstream and will have the capacity to
generate 12.6 GW of electricity. Taken together, the 12 Jinsha River
dams will be capable of generating 59 GW, or nearly as much power as all
4,000 hydroelectric generating stations in the United States.
China already operates half of the world's large hydropower dams, and
there are more on the way—many more.
Along China's midsection, the upper Yangtze River and five of its
tributaries have 100 big dams that are in various stages of planning,
engineering, and construction. Additionally, at least 43 big dams are in
the same stages of development on the Lancang, Nujiang, Hongshui, and
Jiulong rivers in China's southwest.
Big Risk, Big Reward
The stakes for China's dam-building campaign encompass every sector of
the economy, as well as a historical and ecological heritage that spans
seven southern provinces. The provincial and central government leaders
who support China's program to tame wild rivers with concrete, steel,
and stone assert that hydropower provides considerable benefits to
reduce air pollution, rein in coal consumption, and generate electricity
for fast-growing cities and industries.
But opponents say the dams are wrecking treasured canyons, ruining
fisheries, and displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. Some
critics worry that most of China's new big dams are being built in a
seismically active region that has experienced a number of big
earthquakes, including one in May 2008 that killed 80,000 people in
Sichuan Province. A number of scientists theorized that the weight of
the lake held back by the 760-MW Zipingpu Dam—built less than two
kilometers from a major fault line—may have helped to trigger the disaster.
Just as significantly, opponents note that China is planning to generate
a considerable portion of its energy from hydropower, relying on rivers
that are becoming more susceptible to droughts. Because of climate
change, say scientists, China's southern region is experiencing longer
and more numerous droughts that are lowering water levels.
From 2000 to 2009, China's total water resources fell 13 percent and
almost all of the reduction in rain and snowmelt occurred in southern
and southwestern China. From 2004 to 2009, total water reserves in
Sichuan Province alone dropped 102 million cubic meters (26.9 billion
gallons), or 4 percent, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics.
In 2009 and 2010, a severe drought in southern China nearly shut down
the 6.4-GW Longtan Hydropower Station—China's second largest—because of
low flows in the Hongshui River of the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region,
which shares a border with Vietnam. According to Chen Deqing, the
plant's deputy chief, the $US 4.2 billion plant generated 30 percent
less electricity in 2009 than had been anticipated for that year and 59
percent less in the first quarter of 2010 than in the same period during
the year before.
Other utilities experienced similar power reductions. The Guizhou
Qianyuan Power Company, which operates a number of southern China dams,
reported that water flow to its plants had dropped 30 to 60 percent last
year. That drop had reduced power production by 230 million kilowatt
hours, enough to supply a city of 15,000 people for a year.
"I don't oppose dams as such" said Yang Yong, founder of the Hengduan
Mountain Society and a prominent researcher of western China's rivers
for more than two decades. "But the risk I see in those projects is that
there are so many of them being built all at the same time, and there is
no comprehensive scientific research as for the overall impact, even if
there are assessments for every project separately."
Plentiful Mountains, Canyons, and Rivers
Such issues, though, have not slowed China's fervor for new dam
projects. If anything, in recent months, its ambition has grown stronger.
Just seven years ago, China's hydroelectric-generating capacity reached
100 GW, surpassing the United States as the world's top hydropower
producer. Last year, according to China's National Energy
Administration, hydropower capacity reached 213 GW. By 2020, said the
agency, Chinese turbines will generate 400 GW.
Dam construction has helped to make China's cement and steel markets the
world's largest. It has also produced unusually active and visible
political defiance, as residents protest being moved to make way for the
big storage lakes formed by the dams.
Preservationists mourn the loss of magnificent mountain canyons, and
environmental scientists declare the damage to fisheries and wild
habitat will be incalculable. Still, China's leadership, which had
temporarily suspended some big dams pending more careful environmental
reviews, is expressing new determination to reach their hydropower
generation goals. Their calculus takes into consideration a swarm of big
economic, energy, water-supply, geopolitical, and demographic trends
that more hydropower development could help untangle, according to
The China National Energy Administration claims that by 2020, the 400 GW
of hydro-generating capacity will replace 1.3 billion metric tons of
coal annually, eliminate 2.3 billion metric tons of climate-changing
carbon emissions every year, and help China meet its target of producing
15 percent of the nation's energy with "clean" sources by 2020.
Before he retired earlier this year, Zhang Guobao, the former
administrator of the National Energy Administration, told the People's
Daily that he supported dam building because China's runaway coal
production was a national concern.
"I don't think it is right for us to exhaust the coal reserves," said
Zhang, "as we must leave some room for development for future generations."
Risk of Protests and Protesting Risks
The Jinsha River, or "River of Golden Sands," is the name of the
2,300-kilometer (1,400-mile) section of the upper Yangtze River, from
Yushu in Qinghai Province to Yibin in Sichuan, where the dam-building
spree is occurring. The river and its tributaries cut through mountains
to form spectacular canyons that are home to myriad ethnic minority
groups and some of China's most diverse wildlife habitat.
Along with the 12 dams in the works for the Jinsha River, 21 more are
planned on the Min River, 21 on the Yalong River, and 17 on the Dadu
River. In addition, 18 big dams are planned or are underway on the
Qingyi River, 11 on the Litang, and six on the Jiulong.
Local residents are well aware of the consequences for getting in the
way of the projects. In 2004, more than 100,000 people protested the
Pubugou Dam project in Sichuan Province until riot police crushed the
demonstration. Then, in 2006, Chen Tao—a leader of the protests from two
years before—was executed for what authorities said was his role in the
death of a policeman.
The 3,300-MW dam was completed a year ago.
Environmental Costs Concern Top Leaders
Police response to opposition hasn't stopped local residents or the
country's top leaders—including Premier Wen Jiabao—from asking questions
about such a breathtakingly big construction program.
In 2004, Wen halted development on 13 dams along Yunnan Province's Nu
River. This move was in response to a rapid and aggressive campaign by
Chinese NGOs and journalists that catalyzed national debate over dam
building. This domestic campaign further ignited international criticism
of the environmental damage to such a globally significant wild river.
Wen repeated his concerns in 2009 for the same reasons.
But China's soaring energy demand, and its national goals of producing
more clean energy that reduces climate changing carbon emissions,
prompted China's powerful National Development and Reform Commission
late last year to call for dam development on the Nu River to proceed.
Last week, the order halting the Nu River dams was lifted after China's
new 12th Five-Year Plan set ambitious energy-efficiency,
renewable-energy, and water-conservation goals.
"We believe the Nu River can be developed, and we hope that progress can
be made," Shi Lishan, the deputy director of new energy at the National
Energy Administration, told Chinese National Radio in February.
In June 2009, the China Ministry of Environmental Protection suspended
construction of two big projects upstream on the Jinsha River. The
1,800-MW Longkaikou Dam and the 2,100-MW Ludila Dam projects were
delayed because the developers—Huaneng Power and Huadian Power, two of
the largest power producers in China—did not conduct environmental
reviews prior to the start of construction.
Still, under pressure from provincial authorities and dam developers,
these projects resumed last year on the Jinsha River.
Dam Construction Results in Water Shortages
Sichuan—a province slightly bigger than California with a population of
80 million—is said by Chinese engineers to have the second-largest
hydroelectric potential of all Chinese provinces, behind Tibet. The
reason goes beyond the scenic canyons that distinguish the province.
Water resources in Sichuan historically have totaled around 240 billion
cubic meters (63 trillion gallons), or 10 percent of China's total
freshwater reserves. But the abundance of water, which gave the province
its name—"Four Rivers"—is running low in some sectors, in part due to
climate change that is affecting rainfall and snowmelt, in part due to
heavy pollution that has ruined supplies, and in part as the result of
Chengdu, the provincial capital, is now counted among the 400 Chinese
cities that experience water scarcity, says Tian Jun, the executive
secretary of Chengdu's Urban Rivers Association.
"While the urban population continues to grow, Chengdu is getting less
and less water every year," she said.
Professor Ai Nanshan—a geologist from Sichuan University and president
of the Urban Rivers Association—told Circle of Blue that when it comes
to the confrontation between energy demand and water supply, the former
most often prevails in growth-driven China.
"Some dams, like those on the Min River, and like the Xiangjiaba Dam,
are supposed to have a triple function," Ai said. "They are used for
power generation, but are also supposed to play a role in flood control,
and the reservoirs behind them were supposed to be used for water storage.
"In reality, during the dry season, the reservoir of the Zipingpu Dam on
the Min River is supposed to supply water to Chengdu, but it is also
used to keep generating power. That task takes priority over the water
needs of the population. The government is weighing both interests, but
economic gain from hydropower proves a big temptation."
The irony, say environmental and energy authorities, is that pursuing
new dam construction in a region that is slowly getting dryer—thus
reducing hydropower capacity—could prompt China to become even more
aggressive in developing coal-fired energy production.
Professor Chen Guojie, a researcher at the Sichuan Mountain Hazards and
Environment in Chengdu and an affiliate of the Chinese Academy of
Sciences, summed up the conflicting trends this way: "The dams are built
to provide energy for the next hundred years, according to plans based
on current natural conditions. But these conditions are changing fast.
Not taking climate change into account means that not only are the dams
in Sichuan province harmful for the environment, they might very well
prove dysfunctional in the not-so-distant future."
Rachel Beitarie is an Israeli journalist based in Beijing. This is her
first article for Circle of Blue. Map and graphic by Kelly Shea, Tessa
Tillett, Malik Cato, and Elizabeth Spangler, undergraduate students at
Ball State University.
Toby Smith is a British photojournalist represented by Reportage by
Getty Images who specializes in global energy and environment matters.
His further work can be viewed on his website and he can be reached at:
Contributions by Keith Schneider, Traverse City-based senior editor for
Circle of Blue, and Jennifer Turner, Washington, D.C.-based director of
the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center
for Scholars. Reach Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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