The politics of dam-building
Opening the floodgates
The great rivers of China are being dammed, regardless of the consequences
The Economist, Sep 21st 2013 | DAZHONG VILLAGE, CHONGQING
CHINA has many good reasons not to build the $5.2 billion Xiaonanhai dam
on the Yangzi river in Chongqing. The site, on a gentle slope that moves
water along only slowly, is not ideal for generating hydropower. The
fertile soil makes it one of China's most productive regions, so it is
densely populated with farmers reaping good harvests. And the dam (see
map), which would produce only 10% of the electricity of the Three
Gorges project downstream, could destroy a rare fish preserve,
threatening several endangered species including the Yangzi sturgeon.
In this section
Yet it does not matter how strong the case may be against Xiaonanhai,
because the battle against a hydropower scheme in China is usually lost
before it is fought. The political economy of dam-building is rigged.
Though the Chinese authorities have made much progress in evaluating the
social and environmental impact of dams, the emphasis is still on
building them, even when mitigating the damage would be hard. Critics
have called it the "hydro-industrial complex": China has armies of water
engineers (including Hu Jintao, the former president) and at least 300
gigawatts of untapped hydroelectric potential. China's total generating
capacity in 2012 was 1,145GW, of which 758GW came from coal-burning plants.
An important motive for China to pursue hydropower is, ironically, the
environment. China desperately needs to expand its energy supply while
reducing its dependence on carbon-based fuels, especially coal. The
government wants 15% of power consumption to come from clean or
renewable sources by 2020, up from 9% now. Hydropower is essential for
achieving that goal, as is nuclear power. "Hydro, including large hydro
in China, is seen as green," says Darrin Magee, an expert on Chinese
dams at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York state.
There is also a political reason why large hydro schemes continue to go
ahead. Dambuilders and local governments have almost unlimited power to
plan and approve projects, whereas environmental officials have almost
no power to stop them.
Heavy on the levees
The problems begin with the planning for China's rivers, which are
divided into fiefs by the state-owned power companies that build dams in
much the same way as the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of
Reclamation divided up American rivers in the early 20th century. Though
the staff of the water-resources ministry in Beijing know a lot about
the environment, they have no say. "Big hydro projects are designed and
approved by everybody but the ministry of water resources," says Mr Magee.
Local governments, meanwhile, view dams as enticing economic development
projects. The dambuilders, which have special privileges to borrow, put
up the financing. The extra electricity supports industrial expansion
and brings in revenues. Local officials are promoted for meeting
economic performance targets and some collude for personal gain with the
dambuilders. Because of the decentralised nature of the industry, local
officials try to include dams in their plans. Once they have done so,
they can expect the environmental impact assessments that follow to be a
formality—if only because the consultants who undertake them are paid by
the hydropower companies.
Environmental officials who have not been financially captured by the
dambuilding economy find themselves as scarce as some of the fish they
are charged to protect. Environmental activists, meanwhile, can request
access to public records and demand public hearings, both required by
law. But they say that these avenues are barred when they are most
needed—on controversial projects that face vocal opposition. For
example, the authorities have rejected requests for public records on
Xiaonanhai and they have not granted a public hearing.
If environmental regulators and activists want any hope of halting a
project, they must go outside normal bureaucratic channels to lobby
powerful Politburo members or the national media. Although that may not
always work, it did in 2004, when Wen Jiabao, then prime minister,
halted construction of a cascade of 13 dams on the Nu River in
south-west China in order to protect the environment. Even then some
work on the projects still proceeded. Meanwhile, smaller schemes race
ahead unchecked. Promoted by dambuilders and local governments, nearly
100 smaller hydroelectric projects in the Nu river region went forward
without needing permission from higher up. Some began before they had
even received the final approval.
China's new leaders in recent months have signalled that they want yet
more dams, approving several ambitious new projects, including what
would be the highest dam in the world, on the Dadu river. After Mr Wen
stepped down from his posts in the party and the government, the dams on
the Nu river that he blocked received the go-ahead again.
Chinese leaders have for millennia sought to tame the country's great
rivers, which have sustained and destroyed countless lives with cycles
of abundance, famine and floods. Indeed their legitimacy as rulers has
long been linked to their ability to do so. The Communist Party has
built thousands of large dams since 1949. China is also the world's
leading builder of big dams abroad; International Rivers, a pressure
group, says that Chinese companies and financiers are involved in about
300 dam projects in 66 countries.
The most controversial emblem of Chinese hydropower is the Three Gorges
dam, the largest in the world with a capacity of 22.5GW. In contrast,
America's Hoover Dam has less than one-tenth of that capacity. Many
critics within China felt that the Three Gorges was too big and too
dangerous to build. They predicted that silt would collect in its
reservoir, threatening the stability of the dam and lessening its
capacity to produce power. They warned that the dam's vast reservoir,
which would submerge the homes of more than 1m people, would become
polluted and alter the flow and ecology of the Yangzi river. They also
feared that the dam could cause earthquakes, as it sits on two major
Damn the consequences
In the end, though, political power trumped scientific argument. Nearly
one-third of China's legislature either abstained or voted against the
Three Gorges dam in 1992, in what remains the most vocal opposition the
rubber-stamp body has ever registered against a proposal from China's
leaders. But Li Peng, then prime minister, had trained as a
hydroelectric engineer and was determined to build the dam. (His
daughter, Li Xiaolin, is head of a publicly listed arm of one of the
five big state-owned power companies.)
Today authorities acknowledge that many of the predictions about the
Three Gorges dam have come true. This has led to them proposing
mitigation strategies, including building more dams upstream, such as
Xiaonanhai, to slow the accumulation of silt. The state has also passed
numerous laws and regulations in an attempt to balance dam construction
with the protection of China's rivers.
The Xiaonanhai dam, though, suggests that they are treading the same old
path. First put forward in 1990, it was in recent years pushed hard by
Bo Xilai, a member of China's Politburo who was sacked as Chongqing's
party chief in March 2012 and tried last month. The dam, nevertheless,
had its official groundbreaking ceremony just days after his downfall.
China Three Gorges Corp, which is in charge of this section of the
Yangzi river, has begun minor preparatory work on the dam; residents
have been approached about resettlement; and last year Chongqing
officials listed Xiaonanhai as a ��major project" for 2013, making its
construction almost a certainty, regardless of the environmental impact
assessment when it comes.
Environmental activists are left to accept that hydropower will continue
to transform all the big rivers of China. They argue that Xiaonanhai is
not a "smart" dam even from the perspective of the power companies. For
a large dam, it will not produce much electricity. And it is not ideally
positioned to alleviate the silt build-up in the Three Gorges reservoir
downstream—in part because so many other planned dams farther upstream
will do the job, instead.
Guo Qiaoyu of The Nature Conservancy, an American environmental group,
argues that Chongqing would do better to increase the power-generating
capacity of existing dam projects in the region. A planned cascade of 12
dams along the lower Jinsha river nearby will produce almost 30 times as
much electricity as the Xiaonanhai dam. About 90 other significant dams
are planned in the region.
Fan Xiao, a Chinese environmental scholar and activist, argues that the
dam will also destroy prime farmland that Chongqing needs to feed its
32m people. In a letter in 2011 to national leaders he called the area
around Xiaonanhai "the most productive…concentration of arable land
along the banks of the Yangzi river".
Indeed, Liao Rengang, a farmer of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers beside
the Yangzi, says he earned more than 130,000 yuan ($21,000) last year.
But Mr Liao says he will not bother fighting the dam: "If they want to
take the land they can, because they are the state," he says. "It's not
up to us."
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