The Mega-Dams Detriment: China’s Controversial Hydropower Boost


by Maria Wirth

In efforts to sustain its economic growth rate, China discovered the benefits of renewable energy sources, such as hydropower. When the Chinese find a lucrative idea, they act in superlatives and the early 2000s saw a real hydropower takeoff. With 22,000 dams higher than 15 meters, China is the largest producer of hydroelectricity globally. Its ventures exceed the generating capacity of Canada, Brazil, and the U.S. combined reports state. The People’s Republic of China currently operates 11 of the world’s 25 largest hydro plants, expanding at a fast pace with 130 major projects in the pipeline as of February 2015. While the mega-dams prevent billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions, they cause environmental and geologic disasters, flood vast landscapes and villages, and leave millions of people displaced.


The world’s second largest economy is waging a war on air pollution. Coal power as China’s engine for economic growth bears tremendous negative externalities. A Chinese ministry report in 2010 calculated economic losses of 1.1 trillion Yuan ($143 billion), or 2.5 percent of the total economic output, due to pollution. Since 2005, the leadership has been following the so-called Scientific Development View, a strategy to promote economic growth through environmentally sustainable resource use. Hydro remains the focus, as the 12th five-year plan determines the diversifcation of the domestic energy portfolio. Last year, Premier Li Keqiang even raised the plan’s ambitious targets to expand hydro power generation by another 50 percent, to a total production capacity of 420 gigawatts by 2020.


Particularly along the Jinsha River, the upper stretches of the mighty Yangtze, a major dam is placed at every 90 kilometers downstream. This causes inefficiency and enormous ecologic and geologic disruption. One of the Jinsha mega-dams is the world’s largest hydropower plant. The Three Gorges Dam alone generated 98.8 gigawatt-hours of electricity in 2014, equal to the total yearly electricity consumption of Austria and Denmark combined. This is equivalent to burning 49 million tons of coal, thereby preventing 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Three Gorges Dam Corporation.

“Hydroelectric power is the most cost-effective and stable form of renewable energy,” according to a 2013 study by Solidiance, a leading Asian growth strategy advisory firm. However, on such large scale, detriments are huge. The Three Gorges Dam alone, operational since 2012, flooded 632 square kilometers of land and displaced over 1.5 million people. Besides alleged human rights violations through forced displacement and missing compensation, these mega-dams disrupt regional climates and ecosystems, evoking upstream draughts and unnatural river diversions. Reports state that the Three Gorges Dam submerged a large number of factories, mines and waste dumps, thereby severely polluting its water masses. Biodiversity experts see hundreds of animal and plant species heavily affected along the Yangtze and fisheries threatened in the East China Sea. The Chinese river dolphin was declared extinct in 2006.


According to Cao Wenxuan, ichthyologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, changing the natural flow and water levels affects the local climate and reduces the river’s ability to cleanse itself. “In the cold water of reservoirs like Anjiang and Danjiangkou, the methylation of heavy metals creates organic substances, which are absorbed by plankton and enter the human food chain and damage health,” he told China Dialogue. “The vegetation at the bottom of the reservoir becomes methane, which is a greenhouse gas – that means carbon emissions,” he added.


Fan Xiao, chief engineer of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, discovered in 2014 that landslides and earthquakes appear more frequently along the large-scale cascades on the Jinsha River. Ninety eight percent of western Chinese dams are built in moderate to very high seismic hazard zones, he claimed. The Zipingpu Dam, located in a moderate seismic zone for example, is thought to have triggered the 7.9-degree Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that killed some 80,000 people. With extensive environmental guidelines in place, the Chinese government ordered a halt to projects without permission in 2005, but the companies that violated these regulations paid only minimal fines and were admitted to proceed soon after, according to The Third Pole, a UK-funded platform.


Maria DamThe major dams not only affect the Chinese environment and population, but also downstream regions in bordering countries. The recent most controversial case is the Zangmu dam on the Brahmaputra River in Tibet. The objective is to “empower the development of the electricity-strapped region,” according to Beijing officials. The plant went into operation in November of last year. India’s Ministry of External Affairs repeatedly criticized China’s reluctance to share information on specific construction plans and impact on river flows, which is necessary to assess “the quantum of possible diversion and the impact it would have on the flows to India,” said Ramaswamy Iyer, former Indian Government Water Resources Secretary. Times of India claimed another four projects were planned on the Brahmaputra, despite Tibet’s fragile ecology and little need for such dimensions at its low industrialization level and diffuse population.


The Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) pointed out that for the Burmese population, mostly spread across off-grid areas, centralized large-scale constructions for export would not be the best option. Yet, Chinese foreign investors continue to heavily fund such projects with support of the World Bank Group. After the construction of five dams on the Chinese upper Mekong, contracts concerning the Lower Mekong between China and Lao PDR are in the pipeline as well.


The Don Sahong dam at the Lao-Cambodian border, a Chinese-funded large-scale venture going into construction this year, will leave thousands without a home and strongly affect the Mekong fish migration, already decimated by upstream dams in China. Especially Cambodians rely on the stocks as their main source of protein. Representatives of the affected local communities were completely excluded from the contract negotiations.


The numerous popular uprisings and international uproar have caused a slowdown in the hydropower expansion. Amid the widespread criticism of China’s energy policy, it is noteworthy that the nation’s wind power capacity leads the world with 110 gigawatts, exceeding that of the US and Germany combined, according to a recent update in the South China Morning Post in February. Meanwhile, China also has plans to expand nuclear power ventures from a current 22 reactors, to 50 operational plants by 2020, the article stated further. Unfortunately, the International Energy Agency still ascribes 67 percent of China’s energy supply to coal and the largest nation is going all-out on green industries to reduce this number. However, scale leads to detriment in the hydro case. It remains to be seen whether the leadership and industrial planners will discover the feasibility of smaller-scale facilities to cover regional demands. Hydropower storage is still in its infancy, which makes it difficult to send the large amounts of electricity from the Jinsha, let alone the Brahmaputra, to the large Chinese cities in the east.

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