NewsChina Magazine July 2013 Issue | by Wang Yan
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 ï¿½ 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
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
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
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 ï¿½ the
Shuangjiangkou project ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ the Min, Dadu,
Yalong, Jinsha, Mekong and the Nu ï¿½ 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
Globally, scientists believe that there have been over 100 earthquakes
triggered by reservoirs ï¿½ 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
Lu 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
ï¿½grave 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 Lï¿½.
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
"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
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
"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
"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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