China rushes to build a new generation of mega-dams as thirst for power
By Tom Phillips, Xiluodu, Yunnan province
13 Sept 2012
The Telegraph (UK)
Feng Yinkai could do little but point and stare as the claw of a
turquoise excavator skewered what was left of his riverside home,
enveloping him in a haze of brown dust.
"My things are buried in there," the 64-year-old shouted. "That was my
Home, for Mr Feng, was Fotan, a picturesque village perched on the banks
of the Jinsha or Golden Sands River in China's Yunnan province.
Now his house is gone ï¿½ reduced to a heap of timber and dirt by
demolition crews. And soon the village will also be lost forever, as one
of two massive hydroelectric mega-projects near his home starts
operating and the Jinsha's waters rise, sweeping Fotan from Chinese maps.
"Of course we are willing to move!" Mr Feng sniggered sarcastically as
bulldozers levelled his community. "This is the Communist Party's land,
Mr Feng is one of hundreds of thousands of people facing relocation as
China embarks on a new, multi-billion dollar hydropower drive in the
Following the completion of the Three Gorges dam in 2005, Beijing
appeared to shy away from approving new hydroelectric "mega-projects"
amid concerns about the environmental and human cost and the safety of
building dams in earthquake-prone regions.
But campaigners say the race for China's rivers is now gaining momentum
once again, as authorities battle to meet soaring energy demand while
simultaneously slashing carbon emissions by making 15 per cent of its
energy "clean" by 2020.
Ed Grumbine, an American conservationist based in Yunnan's capital
Kunming, said China's thirst for energy and clean-power drive meant such
projects were now being developed "actively and rapidly".
"The government has two incredibly strong and compelling reasons for it
to move forwards. You have got to make a trade-off if your carbon
footprint is as massive and [is] growing [as fast] as China's."
At the centre of China's latest hydro push is the Jinsha, a murky brown
tributary of the world-famous Yangtze. Two vast projects ï¿½ Xiluodu and
Xiangjiaba ï¿½ will soon go online here, becoming China's second and third
biggest dams with joint capacity to produce around 20GW - enough to
power almost all the homes in England. With an installed capacity of
12.6GW, Xiluodu is one of the biggest hydroelectric projects being built
anywhere on earth.
Meanwhile a "cascade" of dozens more dams are planned or already under
construction elsewhere on the 1429-mile river.
"The Jinsha is number one right now," said Grumbine, the author of a
book about the fight to protect another of Yunnan's rivers. "We are
talking about 30 [dams], something like that, and I would think most of
them will be built."
The Daily Telegraph was the first western news organisation to be given
access to Xiluodu, a 285.5m tall concrete colossus straddling the river
border between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.
Through the morning mist, the construction site resembles a futuristic
citadel, its 21 towers humming with activity as thousands of workers
race to complete an 18-turbine dam that will form a key part of China's
On surrounding mountains, giant billboards heap praise on the 67.5
billion yuan project that will reputedly be the world's third tallest
dam, as high as a 95-story building.
"A model power plant, built with the bureau's full efforts!" boasts one.
"Make full efforts to support reconstruction and relocation work!"
Yang Jiacong, a senior official from Yongshan county, where Xiluodu is
located, said the dams were transforming the region; schools had been
built, health care improved and incomes were rocketing. "[It is] is a
good thing for the country and [the] people."
Outsiders are flocking to this isolated corner of China. Xiluodu's
62-room Pleasant China Hotel now welcomes foreign guests through two
brand-new Ionic columns, including technicians from electronics giant
Siemens who have draped a German flag from a second-floor balcony.
Impoverished migrant workers have also set up camp along the Jinsha,
charging ï¿½5 a day to dismantle homes slated for demolition.
"The dam is good ï¿½ at least it has brought us job opportunities," said
Gan Longyin, 40, who is sleeping with his family in the shell of one
gutted Fotan residence.
But environmentalists, geologists and river dwellers have major
misgivings about the construction "frenzy".
"[The Jinsha] is big and beautiful. [But] if you have 25 dams and every
100km there is a dam then you don't have a river. You will never have a
river again," said Liu Jianqing, an environmental journalist and
campaigner. "It means you won't have fish, you will lose a lot of land
and many people have to lose their homes. We call that a dead river."
Grumbine said there were concerns about building dams in an area prone
"The government needs to pay more attention to the seismic issues. They
down play that big time. If they build a dam and get the carbon benefits
and then have a 6,7 or 8 point earthquake ï¿½ the dam is going to go and
it is not going to be pretty," he said.
The Jinsha dams will displace fewer people than the Three Gorges dam,
which saw at least 1.2m people relocated. But for those affected the
impact has been immense.
"Nothing good has come out of it for us," complained Long Anji, 33, as
he loaded his home, brick-by-brick, into a truck.
One of 39,210 people relocated in Yongshan county, Mr Long ran a grocers
with his wife until officials ordered them out. "We can do nothing.
Sometimes it is difficult to argue with the local government."
Some have taken shelter on a ravine above the Jinsha, cobbling shacks
together with plastic and window frames stripped from homes that no
"I have no plans for the future," said Bo Guangting, 58, a retired
factory worker who said compensation had been insufficient to secure a
new home. "We have no place to live and the government just ignores it."
Mr Bo claimed those who resisted relocation had been arrested, a story
corroborated by other villagers. "We are still willing to support the
country but we hope there will be a better solution for us," he said.
Mr Yang denied "violent or arbitrary methods were used on the people."
"The majority of the people relocated are content since they moved to a
new home and improved their [living] conditions. They just need some
time to get adjusted to the new environment."
But there have been outbreaks of unrest along the Jinsha. Last year riot
police quelled a "mass disturbance" in Suijiang town, where 60,000
people are being relocated because of the Xiangjiaba dam.
In towns and villages along the Jinsha locals voiced support Beijing but
expressed mistrust and fear of local officials.
"We feel really sad and bitter," complained one man whose home in
Sichuan province's Dukou village was destroyed in May to make way for
the Xiangjiaba dam. He claimed the best compensation packages were
reserved for those with ties to local officials. "We now have far too
many corrupt officials."
Even traditional party allies said the relocation had stretched their
loyalty to breaking point.
Inside his semi-demolished home an elderly retied official shook with
anger as an earth-digger ripped down his neighbour's house.
"If the government actually comes to demolish my house as it is now, I'm
going to risk my life and fight," he shouted. "We support nation
building [and] the dam project, but the relocation treatment is not in
accordance with the party line."
But with the bulldozers closing in, what more could he do?
"I'm over 70, and have lived long enough," he replied. "I will greet
them with a bang."
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