Friday, March 21, 2014

China rivers at the brink of collapse

China rivers at the brink of collapse
CGIAR Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog, March 21, 2014
by Peter Bosshard

China's rulers have traditionally derived their legitimacy from
controlling water. The country ranks only sixth in terms of annual river
runoff, but counts half the planet's large dams within its borders. A
new report warns that dam building has brought China's river ecosystems
to the point of collapse.

Since the 1950s, China has dammed, straightened, diverted and polluted
its rivers in a rapid quest for industrialization. Many of these
projects had disastrous environmental, social and economic impacts. The
Sanmenxia Dam on the Yellow River for example flooded 660 square
kilometers of fertile land and displaced 410,000 people. Yet because it
silted up rapidly the project only generates power at one sixth of its
projected capacity.

In the new millennium, the Chinese government realized that its ruthless
dam building program threatened to undermine the country's long term
prosperity and stability. In 2004, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao suspended
dam construction on the Nu (Salween) and the Jinsha (upper Yangtze)
rivers, including a project on the magnificent Tiger Leaping Gorge. The
government created fisheries reserves and strengthened environmental
guidelines. In 2011, it even acknowledged the "urgent environmental
problems" of Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the world's largest
hydropower project.

The growing climate crisis ended the period of relative caution in
building dams. At the climate summit of Copenhagen in 2009, the Chinese
government committed to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by
40-45% by 2020. As a consequence, the government launched a relentless
new dam building effort under its 12th Five-Year-Plan (2011-15).

The current plan commits to approving 160 megawatts of new hydropower
capacity by 2015 - more than any other country has built in its entire
history. It prioritizes 50 large hydropower plants on the Jinsha (upper
Yangtze), Yalong, Dadu, Lancang (upper Mekong), Yarlung Tsangpo
(Brahmaputra) and upper Yellow River. The plan also authorizes the
construction of five of the 13 dams on the Nu (Salween) River which the
government had stopped in 2004.

Alarmed by the pace of renewed dam building, experts from Chinese
environmental organizations have come together to prepare what they call
the "last report" on China's rivers. The report, which was completed in
February 2014, highlights four main problems with the current wave of
hydropower development:

. Dams are seriously degrading China's freshwater ecosystems. They
are drying up rivers and lakes, inundate fertile floodplains, and
compromise the capacity of rivers to clean themselves. As a result, the
Three Gorges and other reservoirs have been turned into waste dumps, at
times exploding in toxic algae blooms. The Chinese river dolphin, which
ploughed the waters of the Yangtze for 20 million years, has become
extinct, and other freshwater species are under threat. Fish sanctuaries
created to mitigate the impacts of dam building exist on paper only, or
have been curtailed to allow space for more dams.

. Dams impoverish poor communities further. According to former Prime
Minister Wen Jiabao, dam building has displaced 23 million people in
China. Displaced populations are frequently cheated and bullied by
corrupt local officials, and the promised jobs or replacement lands
often don't materialize. Land conflicts have become the primary cause of
social unrest in China. As dam building moves upstream into mountain
areas, ethnic minorities are particularly affected by displacement.

. Reservoirs are destabilizing geologically fragile river valleys,
create frequent landslides, and compound earthquake risks. Scientists
suggest that the Zipingpu Dam in Sichuan may have triggered the Wenchuan
earthquake, which killed at least 69,000 people in May 2008. Dam
cascades in the seismically active valleys of southwest China are a
particular concern for triggering and being impacted by earthquakes.

. The decision-making process is in disarray, and government
regulations are no match for the new dam building rush. Integrated river
basin plans and environmental impact assessments are almost always
carried out after dam construction starts. Large projects such as the
Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams even began their construction phase before
they received their final approval. In the face of such abuses, no
channels for effective public consultation and participation exist.

The authors of the new report point out that China's energy intensity is
7 times higher than Japan's and 2.8 higher than India's. Energy
intensive and polluting industries continue to suffer from
over-capacity. A less energy-intensive development path will be required
to relief the pressure on China's ecosystems. In the meantime, the
authors propose a system of "ecological redlines" that could protect
critical ecosystems from being dammed.

According to the first national water census carried out in 2013, China
lost 28,000 of its estimated 50,000 rivers within a few decades. The
"speed of current hydropower dam construction", the authors of the new
report warn, "will bring unexpected, irreversible and unbearable
consequences" to the country's remaining rivers. Unless the government
takes urgent action, the new report may become the epitaph for China's

About the Author: Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International

This blog post is featured alongside responses to the question "Should
we build more large dams" as part of a series of responses for World
Water Day 2014 at
The new China rivers report is available at

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