China's Dams

Three Gorges just Act One in the drive to harness nature

South China Morning Post
September 11, 2002

Even before all the generators at the Three Gorges dam come into operation, Chinese planners are furiously mapping out numerous dams along some of the biggest rivers in the southwestern part of the country.

Even before all 26 generators at the Three Gorges Dam come into operation, Chinese planners are furiously mapping out numerous dams along some of the biggest rivers in the southwestern part of the country. In theory, the projects are in line with the central government’s push to develop renewable energy to ease over-reliance on oil – the country is a net oil importer – and polluting coal-fired plants.

Under a State Council medium to long-term energy programme, Beijing has pledged to conserve energy and resources while protecting the environment, hence the push into clean energy. More than 70 per cent of power supply now comes from coal-fired plants and only 15 per cent from hydropower plants. Officials have forecast that there are at least 540,000 megawatts of hydropower waiting to be tapped using currently available technology. The mainland’s hydropower capacity reached 100,000 MW by the end of last year and facilities to generate a further 30,000 MW are being built. “China has selected hydropower as a major alternative form of energy,” said Zhang Dingming, vice-general manager of China Yangtze Power, developer of the Three Gorges project. “By 2020, development of hydropower will reach its prime.”

Controversial as it is, the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s biggest, sets the benchmark for future large-scale mainland hydropower stations. The two powerhouses – with 26 units of 700 MW hydro-turbine generators – are located on either side of the spillway behind the dam in the left and right banks. The 14 generators on the left bank are already in operation and churn out 180,000 MW of electricity daily. Those on the right are being installed and will be commissioned by 2009. At full capacity, Three Gorges will be capable of generating 84.7 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year – an impressive energy contribution in a country chronically short of power. The project is being closely monitored by government officials and public concern groups for any adverse impact on the environment.

Still, despite a central government drive to step up development of hydropower, the path has been strewn with opposing voices from a handful of officials, environmentalists and academics. There is also the issue of resettling residents and allegations of corruption among local officials accused of siphoning off compensation payments from the power companies intended for people displaced by the dam.

Opposition to planned new dams in other areas, including Yunnan province, has been overwhelming and includes the support of the State Environmental Protection Administration. As a result, the State Council earlier this year suspended the construction of dozens of hydropower stations for failing to meet environmental protection requirements. The projects involve more than 10 billion yuan of investment and were being undertaken by some of China’s biggest power producers such as China Yangtze.

The Nu River region of Yunnan has been slated for 13 hydropower stations, whose combined generation capacity will dwarf the Three Gorges Dam. The area is one of the poorest in the country and apart from the plentiful water resources, it has little to fall back on for economic development. These projects highlight the wider contradictory landscape China faces and the contentious trade-offs Beijing must make between development and protecting the environment. “Apart from developing water resources, the Nu River area really can’t find any better way to develop,” a Nu Jiang Lisu Autonomous region official was reported as saying.

Official estimates put the Nu River’s hydropower potential at 20,000 MW and water resources account for 47 per cent of Yunnan’s total resources. The provincial government is determined to tap the abundant resources from three parallel rivers – the Nu, Jinsha and Lancang – that together have been declared a Unesco World Heritage site. The series of power stations to be built on the Nu River would have a combined capacity to generate 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This would be equivalent to burning 50 million tonnes of coal. The Nu River project has been endorsed by high-profile academics He Zuoxiu and Lu Youmei, also the former general manager of China Yangtze.

Other planned projects include proposals to dam the Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Jinsha River. At the moment, China Yangtze is planning four more hydropower stations, in addition to the Three Gorges and Gezhouba dam, which is downstream from the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. Work on the Xiangjiaba and Xiluodu dams will begin soon while others at Baihetan and Wudongde are still in the planning stage. Together, Gezhouba and Three Gorges churn out 250 million kilowatt-hours of electricity daily.

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