Jinsha dam plans stoke old rows
By Deng Quanlun and Hu Feifei
July 02, 2012
chinadialogue note: once again, experts, NGOs and officials are getting
stuck into China's hydropower debate, much of it played out in the
country's media. Here's a translated article from Guangzhou-based
newspaper Time Weekly about the ongoing struggle between dam-building
and environmental protection in south-west China.
Another bout of fighting has broken out over hydropower development on
China's Jinsha River, the westernmost tributary to the Yangtze.
At the launch of a new survey on dam-building in late May, Zhang Boting,
deputy secretary general of the China Society for Hydropower
Engineering, denounced the "fake experts" he said were misleading
journalists and the public, and rejected reports of an untrammelled dam
frenzy in south-west China.
Specifically, he levelled the "fake expert" insult at Yang Yong, chief
scientist at the Hengduan Mountains Research Institute and a member of
the expert committee at the China Foundation for Desertification Control.
Yang has been waging a battle to protect the Jinsha River from
exploitation since 2004. He argues that plans for intensive development,
involving 25 dams, will break the river up into sections of still water.
This is not a good use of the Yangtze's resources, he says, and will
affect fish migration.
Plans in the public domain include a cascade of 25 dams on the Jinsha
River, which would generate as much electricity as four Three Gorges
Dams put together. This would create a huge cluster of reservoirs - on
average, one every 100 kilometres.
For two weeks in April and May, the magazine of the China Society for
Hydropower Engineering, Energy, invited a group of hydrologists to
survey dam-building activities in south-west China. Zhang Boting joined
the expert group. Coincidentally, while they were carrying out their
investigation, a flurry of media reports came out raising doubts about
the wisdom of the development plans.
On May 16, a meeting was held to present a summary of the survey's
findings. It was also an opportunity for the industry to respond to
public concerns about excessive development. Zhang made a keynote speech
at the meeting, in which he started by refuting claims that hydropower
construction had got out of control.
Are plans to have "hydroelectric dams less than 100 kilometres apart"
excessive? No, Zhang said: this is normal. Cascades are standard both in
China and abroad. There are 70 hydroelectric dams on the 1,000-kilometre
Tennessee River, he said, and in Europe similarly dense clusters of dams
are found on rivers including the Rhine and the Danube. [Editor's note:
According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, only 41 dams in fact
contribute to the Tennessee Valley power system].
Zhang had more to say. He followed up his speech with 11 articles,
published on the society's website, systematically rebutting criticisms
of the Jinsha development plans.
And his efforts triggered a counter-attack. Yang Yong accused Zhang of
forgetting China's circumstances, of blindly applying foreign
experiences to development of the Jinsha, and deliberately ignoring the
fragility of ecosystems on the upper reaches of the river. He said the
ecologies of the Jinsha and other rivers in south-west China are
extremely sensitive, and cannot be directly compared with rivers overseas.
There are, however, lessons to be drawn from abroad, Yang said: US and
European dam-building is carried out as part of wider river management
approach that is sensitive to the overall functions of the river
ecosystem, he argued. In contrast, development of the Jinsha is more
single-mindedly focused on hydropower, and could damage the river as a
With 25 dams, the rapidly-flowing Jinsha River will be sliced into
sections of passive water, changing the hydrology of the entire basin,
he said. The environment, habitat and lifecycles of state-protected fish
like the Chinese paddlefish and the Dabry's Sturgeon will be impacted.
Yang accused Zhang of being a spokesperson for industry interests. He
said he was a "person of confused logic" with a coarse attitude, who
attacked and insulted those who held different views.
Both men have impressive backgrounds. Zhang, 58, was sent to work in the
north-east of China during the Cultural Revolution. On returning to
Beijing in 1977, he attended Peking University and later joined the
China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, where he was
involved in dam design, stress analysis and structural analysis. In
1990, he joined the China Hydropower Engineering Society.
Yang, 53, has been described in the media as the most "enlightened" of
civil society's environmental experts, thanks to his extensive
on-the-ground research. Over the last 20 years, he has visited almost
all of China's rivers, on foot, by raft or by car. He has followed the
environmental story of the Jinsha since the 1980s. On May 23, he was
awarded the Nikkei Asia Prize - which "recognises the achievements of
people and organisations that have improved the lives of people in Asia"
for his independent and sustained investigations into dams and the
The two men have never met, but they are by no means strangers. Zhang is
a staunch supporter of dams, while Yang is a representative of the
opposition. And their ongoing war of words shows the struggle between
hydropower and environmental protection in microcosm.
Controversy has dogged the Jinsha since 2004. The previous year, the
State Development Planning Commission (predecessor of the National
Development and Reform Commission, the country's top economic planning
body) approved plans for a cascade of eight dams on the middle reaches
of the river. When the news broke, an opposition lobby of green NGOs,
experts and environmental protection officials quickly got organised.
In 2009, a crackdown on dubious environmental approvals for large
projects by the Ministry of Environmental Protection brought the
programme to a halt. Then in July 2010, the government ended a
moratorium on approvals for new dams, prompted by an urgent need to cut
carbon emissions. Zhang Guobao, at the time head of the National Energy
Administration, said that if energy-saving and emissions-reduction
targets for 2020 were to be met, China would need 380 million kilowatts
of hydropower capacity. That meant both approvals and construction
needed to speed up.
But even as China's hydropower sector geared up again, the row over
environmental protection versus development was raging on. Now into
2012, it appears as fierce as ever.
Lu Youmei, a hydrology and hydropower engineer and member of the Chinese
Academy of Engineering is broadly supportive of dam-building. Lu
admitted that there are problems to be addressed in the Chinese
hydropower sector, but said this is no reason to give up: "The key is to
look at the problems realistically, scientifically and rationally."
Lu said that, far from it being a case of development going too far in
China, river exploitation is actually lagging behind other countries.
National Energy Administration figures indicate China has the potential
to generate 542 million kilowatts of energy from hydropower, but is only
actually generating around 34% of that, 185 million kilowatts. This is
much lower than utilisation rates in developed nations of around 60% to 70%.
But Weng Lida, once head of the environmental protection department at
the Yangtze River Commission, insisted that hydropower development has
got out of control. "There are too many dams on the rivers in the
south-west, the rivers can hardly breathe," he said
And, early last month, the Ministry of Water Resources' Changjiang River
Scientific Research Institute, China Three Gorges Project Corporation
(CTGPC) and WWF published a report called "China's Environmental Flows
Research and Practice". The report concluded that there were already too
many hydropower plants on some parts of the upper Yangtze and that
untrammelled development was affecting the basin's ecological balance.
Chen Guojie, a researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards
and Environment, is worried: if plans for the upper reaches of the
Yangtze go ahead as planned, 100 species of fish will die out, he warned.
Even Cao Guangjing, chairman of China Three Gorges Project Corporation -
the state-owned company behind the world's largest hydroelectric dam to
date - is cautious. With more dams, the coordination of water storage
and drainage will be problematic, he said; dealing with this challenge
is a work in progress, and hydropower development needs to take account
You can't squeeze all the value out of every drop of water, you need to
consider the environment's needs, he said. "Protect as you develop,
develop as you protect. That's the principle."
Deng Quanlun and Hu Feifei are reporters at Time Weekly, where this
article was first published.
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