China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Develop and be dammed - China to build on virgin river

By David Stanway

Shanghai. March 15. INTERFAX-CHINA - The International Day of Action Against Dams fell on Tuesday. Interfax marks the occasion with a special report on the current state of play in China's hydropower industry.

From left to right: the Mekong at Xishuangbanna, the construction site at the Three Gorges, the Sanmenxia Dam in Henan Province, the Nu (Salween) River in northern Yunnan, the Min River in Sichuan and the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Images: Interfax

Most experts agree that the construction of 13 dams on the Salween, one of China's last untouched rivers, will begin soon. The river, which emerges from the Himalayas and wriggles its way through more than a hundred kilometers of spectacular canyons, several struggling conurbations and dozens of remote rural settlements before leaving China via Yunnan Province, is regarded as a "test case" for the future development of hydropower in China, and for the much-vaunted new regulatory structure for large dams and reservoirs in the country.

Although the project was suspended in 2004, powerful voices in the Chinese power industry are pushing for the go-ahead to be given. Former Three Gorges chief Lu Youmei said earlier this year that construction should start as soon as possible. Meanwhile, China's Minister of Water Resources, Wang Shucheng, told reporters last week that four less controversial dams could be launched first, while the more contentious ones could be postponed pending further research.

"All the indications we are getting suggest that permission will be given for the first four projects," Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director of the International Rivers Network, told Interfax. "And the other projects will get built eventually."

The Salween, known in China as the Nu (meaning "Angry") River, has become a cause celebre for a number of NGOs and pressure groups in China and overseas. The fate of the region's fragile ecology, as well as a number of isolated ethnic minority communities, is thought to hang in the balance. As required by law, an environmental impact assessment was conducted in the area, but it has been designated a "state secret" because of the implications for downstream countries.

The expansion of hydropower capacity has been an emotive subject in China for some time. In 1992, the proposal to construct the world's highest dam at the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River was greeted with unprecedented levels of opposition at the National People's Congress (NPC), with many of the normally quiescent delegates roused by a decade of fierce popular opposition to a project that many believed would cost the earth, lead to catastrophic environmental changes and force over a million rural people from their homes.

Eventually, the project's chief backer, Premier Li Peng, pushed the project through with 1,767 NPC delegates in favor and 177 voting against and 644 abstaining. Since construction got underway in 1994, legions of seismological, engineering, environmental, biological, meteorological, archaeological and even military experts have been employed by the project to ensure that the construction of the dam went smoothly and the direst predictions of disaster did not come to pass. By May this year, the main construction on the 185-m dam will have been completed, and all 26 turbines will be generating power by 2008, a year ahead of schedule. The occasional embezzlement of funds, the fate of over a million migrants, the costs of pollution in the Yangtze and the erosion of the river's frail banks have been among some of the major challenges faced by the constructors. By now, they say that despite one or two setbacks, the challenges have all been overcome.

But it has not just been the Three Gorges and the Yangtze River. One expert, Chen Guojie of the China Academy of Sciences, has compared China's "hydropower fever" to the rampant construction of ramshackle iron smelters during the Great Leap Forward, and he told Interfax that the problem is not merely confined to the damp and fertile southwest. Developers have been racing to take over the rivers of Guizhou, Guangxi, Sichuan and Yunnan in what has been described by critics as a new "enclosure" movement, but even in the achingly arid northwest, where the trickle of the Yellow River provides the only life support for thousands of poor villages, the local authorities are still approving plans to construct several massive hydroelectric plants, including what will become the river's largest at the Laxiwa Gorge in Qinghai Province. Remote Tibet is next on the list, with the virgin Brahmaputra thought to be capable of supporting as much as 100,000 MW in capacity.

Reservoirs have been impounded on the Yangtze River and most of its tributaries, on the Mekong in the semi-tropical border areas of Yunnan, and as well as the Salween, controversial plans are also underway to construct a hydropower project at the Tiger Leaping Gorge in northern Yunnan.

Despite the opposition, Beijing insists that the "trade-offs" are necessary, and that a system is already in place to protect the rights of the thousands who have found themselves dispossessed and impoverished during the course of development. Senior officials say that they are learning how to better ensure the interests of local people and how to protect the fragile ecosystems in the region. They point to groundbreaking legislation by the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) to guarantee that those interests are taken into account.

Indeed, fourteen years after the Three Gorges Project was first approved, China's leadership used the latest NPC session to insist that a sea-change had taken place in China's economic development model. The latest Five-Year Plan was said to mark the switch from the "first get rich" era to a more sustainable, measured and environmentally-friendly age. Meanwhile, in his opening speech, Li Peng's successor as Premier, Wen Jiabao, called for "a new road to industrialization".

China's potential hydropower capacity is the biggest in the world. A recent government survey put the figure at around 700,000 MW, 400,000 MW of which was deemed commercially viable. The government, still desperate to find the energy to fuel its growth and keen, at the same time, to avoid pumping even more greenhouse emissions into its already polluted atmosphere, has approved a massive new batch of dams and reservoirs along all of its major rivers.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, China already contains 46% of the world's total dams. China, however, hints at western hypocrisy by saying that hydropower in Europe has already reached around 80% of total potential capacity. "Only 20% of China's hydropower has been developed," said Wang Yuan, the head of the Sichuan Energy Bureau, "compared to 60-70% in the US. In Sichuan, only about 10% [of potential capacity] had been developed by the end of 2004."

Officials also point to power shortages, with the problems in Sichuan itself being particularly severe. Developing energy capacity was one of the major elements of the strategy to boost economic growth in western regions. The West-East Power Transmission Project, for instance, concentrated in its first phase on boosting hydropower capacity in the southwest in order to guarantee electricity consumption in the prosperous southeastern coast.

The human impact

Twenty-three million rural people in China have been moved from their land as a result of dam construction and reservoir impoundment, according to official figures released in the middle of last year by the Ministry of Water Resources. Furthermore, said Tang Chuanli of the MWR's Resettlement Bureau, a third of them still had not reached a basic standard of living.

"The global experience with dam construction is that it does not bring development to local communities," said Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director at the International Rivers Network. Citing experiences at the Three Gorges Dam and the Manwan hydropower station in Yunnan Province, she said that it was "naïve to believe that these dams will bring benefits to local people."

It has been widely acknowledged, even by senior government figures, that the "trade-off" involved in the construction of dams and reservoirs has been less than balanced. State Council secretary Hua Jianmin even suggested last year that the price of hydroelectricity be raised in order to better compensate evicted farmers. Meanwhile, in a recent report by academics attached to the Chinese Communist Party, it was shown that in northwestern China, the communities forced to make way for reservoirs on the upstream of the Yellow River were considerably worse off than before. The report made familiar reading. Thousands of people had been forced to abandon their relatively fertile riverside farms and resettle on lower quality land.

At the Three Gorges, government figures state that more than a million people have been shifted from the banks of the Yangtze to face uncertain prospects in less fertile land further upstream, or, at best, to take up menial jobs in urban regions as far afield as Shanghai. Some experts say that the real figure is much higher than that, and could reach as many as 2 mln once the project is completed and the depth of the reservoir water reaches 175 m in 2008.

Meanwhile, at the Manwan hydropower station in Yunnan Province, thousands of uneducated farmers were left landless and impoverished, forced to try their luck in tenement slums in nearby urban centers with only a lump-sum payment of RMB 3,000 (USD 373) and an annual gratuity of RMB 400 (USD 49.69) to sustain them, according to Chinese media reports.

In 2004, at Pubugou in Sichuan, almost the whole population of Hanyuan County rose against the local government, which stood accused of colluding with a national hydropower giant to minimize compensation payments. It is a common phenomenon, experts say. Chen Guojie of the China Academy of Sciences pointed out that "some officials just work for their own benefit while making the support of poor people an excuse for the construction."

All in all, however, the government says that the majority actually benefit from construction. Without hydropower, say officials, it would be significantly more difficult to develop industry in areas like Xishuangbanna or the Nu River Prefecture in Yunnan Province.

Chen Guojie is skeptical. "Farmlands are flooded by hydropower construction, and farmers get very small amounts of compensation," he said. "But we sometimes find that industry cannot be developed near the construction sites, which make it impossible to raise the living standards of local people."

With many experts are predicting a power surplus after the waves of capacity expansion over the last three years, the World Bank, among others, is predicting major financial losses might hit Chinese power plants in the coming years. If that is the case, hydropower plants might not be capable of operating at full capacity, and their contribution to local communities will be reduced still further.

The environmental impact

An official surnamed Yin with the Yunnan Development and Reform Commission told Interfax that hydropower construction had been improved in recent years, especially after the project approval system was changed last year. The rules made it clear that hydropower plants should not begin construction until they have received the go-ahead from all related government bureaus, including the ministries of Land and Resources and Water Resources, SEPA, and the government institutions responsible for the relocation of migrants.

However, Chen Guojie believes that China’s hydropower development remains chaotic. He also noted that it was not just large-scale projects in western China that caused the most problems.

"We might have thought that most of the problems take place in hydropower construction in western China, but construction in eastern areas is also dissatisfactory," he said. "And the problems are more serious with some small projects, as the local government is focused merely on the economic benefits while neglecting the negative impact on the local environment."

The problems of small hydropower have been especially evident on the Min River in Sichuan, where the rampant growth of unregulated paper mills and smelters, supported by dozens of small hydropower plants, has led to pollution, silt build-ups and water shortages.

According to Chen, many hydropower projects have been set up without regard to the environmental consequences, leading to serious ecological damage. "When the water flow is cut by the construction of dams, species of fish may go extinct," he said.

"As too many projects have been built on the Yangtze River, the amount of water in some regions will be reduced. Cities like Shanghai, which is located at the mouth of the Yangtze, will be affected by the lower water volume. Reverse flow of seawater may be seen in Shanghai in 10 to 20 years, if the excessive construction goes on," Chen said.

The Yellow River has repeatedly failed to reach the coast in the last three decades as a result of overdevelopment.

"Construction of most dam projects in the country has not been done in line with the Environmental Impact Assessment [EIA] Law," said Li Dun, a professor with Qinghua University in Beijing. Li referred to the collusion between the environment appraisal organizations and construction companies. "As a result [of the collusion], improper construction has caused great negative impact to the local environment and the lives of local residents."

Fan Xiao, a hydropower expert based in Sichuan Province, concurs, noting that the people staffing the environmental appraisal bodies are almost invariably ex-hydropower officials.

The recent environment appraisal regulations suggest that the central government is paying more attention to the issue, but it is still hard to predict whether or not Beijing can implement the policies effectively, said Li.

Like most experts, Li said that dam construction could be improved by a more transparent information disclosure system and by allowing the public to join the decision-making process. He suggested that an "accountability system" should be set up for all officials involved.

"Some credit has to be given to the government for recognizing environmental issues," said Aviva Imhof of the International Rivers Network. However, even the proper implementation of the Environmental Impact Assessment Law might not be enough, she noted. "The [new] laws are an incredible advance for China in terms of requiring hearings and EIAs," she said, but "our experience in other countries is that EIAs don't make much difference."

The reports tend to be "rubber-stamping devices", she said, with the assessors likely to have vested interests in approving the project. "They will never be given another contract [by the hydropower companies] if they reject it."

Fan Xiao also told Interfax that most of the environmental assessment organizations in China were often mere appendages of the hydropower companies.

Ma Jun, an environment expert and the author of China's Water Crisis, said that "China has seen some improvement in dam construction in terms of environmental protection in recent years, but there is still a long way to go," said Ma.

"Improper construction plans have changed the ecological situation of rivers, leading to the submerging of land, the cutting-off of water supplies and even flooding. In some cases, it also destroys scenery, such as the proposed project in Tiger Leaping Gorge," said Ma.

More than 80,000 residents at the Tiger Leaping Gorge could be another factor to take into account for the industrial project, Ma added.

Moreover, the large-scale hydropower development in the southwestern regions in the country has also raised the likelihood of safety problems, with seismic activity and subsidence expected to rise, said Ma.

Construction set to continue

China's hydropower history has been problematic because there has been no good way to stop. The Sanmenxia project is a case in point, with the dam requiring decades of corrective construction and even a complete overhaul in 1969, leading some experts to recommend that it be decommissioned.

The Three Gorges Project Corporation has already started constructing the Xiluodu hydropower station on the Yangtze's upstream, part of a number of dams and hydropower plants that are designed in part to reduce the silt pressures on the Three Gorges Dam. Furthermore, the construction of the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam is thought by some experts to buttress the flood prevention facilities of the Three Gorges reservoir.

While China's more measured approach to economic growth, outlined in the latest Five-Year Plan, is likely to lead to greater oversight, it is unlikely to slow down the pace of construction.

Fan Xiao, the Sichuan-based geologist, has told Interfax that the current rounds of construction, particularly in the remote Sichuan county of Liangshan, where 40,000 MW of capacity is expected to be completed in the next fifteen years, has nothing to do with power shortages and more to do with economic growth figures and the prestige of local officials.

There is no end in sight, with hydropower viewed by elements of the central government, by the leaders of the country's state-owned power firms, and by local governments, as the quickest and easiest way to jump-start the local economy. As NDRC vice-director Zhang Guobao said last year, despite the opposition, construction will continue.

(WInnie Zhu and Terry Wang contributed to this report)

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