Dams and Landslides

Don’t build dams everywhere, expert warns

Chen Guojie

May 18, 2008

Respected researcher Chen Guojie cautions against the headlong rush to construct hydropower projects all over southwest China, where “no valley is being left undisturbed, and no river left undammed.”

The translated version of this article originally ran in the August 22, 2005 edition of Three Gorges Probe

Chen Guojie is a senior researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Exploiting the hydropower resources of southwest China forms the basis of the “west-east power transmission” project, and could play a vital role in the grand program aimed at developing the country’s western region. Several arguments can be made in support of the strategy.

First of all, the coastal area is more developed economically but its coal reserves and hydropower potential are not vast. By contrast, southwest China has rich hydropower resources and a tremendous potential capacity to provide electricity to the coastal area. So there is no doubt that developing the hydropower potential of the southwest is an important part of China’s overall energy-development strategy.

Second, exploiting the hydropower resources of the southwest would do much to promote the economic development of the region itself. The region also needs electricity to fuel its development but, apart from Guizhou province, lacks abundant coal reserves and the quality of its coal is generally poor. Furthermore, the region cannot afford to develop nuclear power, so exploiting hydropower is the right choice in southwest China.

Third, air pollution in general, and acid rain in particular, has plagued the southwest. Developing hydropower would mean that construction of thermal-power plants could be cut back, thus helping to reduce the region’s acid-rain problem.

Finally, exploiting hydropower would give a boost to other related industries, such as machine building, iron and steel, construction materials and so forth, thus creating development opportunities for industries, and regions, in the southwest and beyond.

However, a chaotic situation and many serious problems surround the development of hydropower in the southwest. If we fail to tackle these problems urgently and effectively, the consequences could be serious.

The main problems are as follows:

The scramble for power

Hydro projects are being built, planned or proposed on almost every river in the southwest, including the upper Yangtze, the upper Pearl, the Lancang and Nu valleys. No valley is being left undisturbed, and no river left undammed, in Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi and Chongqing. Small, medium and large dams are springing up everywhere, with generating capacities ranging in size from more than 10 million kw, down to several thousand kw.

A rough estimate reveals that in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces alone, 104 hydro stations with a capacity of 150,000 kw or more, and 72 stations with a capacity of between 50,000 and 150,000 kw, are being planned for the Nu, Lancang, Jinsha, Dadu, Yalong and Min rivers. And there is no way to calculate exactly how many small dams (with generating capacity below 50,000 kw) are being planned and built on those rivers.

A recent survey by the Sichuan Electric Power Bureau found 128 small-scale hydro stations with the “four no’s”: no feasibility study, no official approval, no environmental assessment and no acceptance certificate. In a few extreme cases, cascades of small dams have been built on river sections that are just a kilometre long. The situation is reminiscent of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s, when crude steel smelters cropped up in every backyard.

What is particularly worrying is that in most cases, no comprehensive planning for the development and environmental protection of the valleys involved has been undertaken. Each dam builder administers its own affairs, with no regard for the collective interest.

Who should be responsible for these unchecked activities and how can this chaotic situation be brought under control? I’d like to characterize the situation as “anarchism under government rule.”

Dams, dams everywhere

Cascades of dams are being built all over the river valleys of southwest China. In the upper reaches of the Yangtze, for example, starting from the Three Gorges project, strings of dams are planned for the main channel of the river, including 21 dams with a generating capacity of more than 150,000 kw each that are proposed for the Jinsha River (as the upper Yangtze is known). The four biggest of these are Wudongde, Baihetan, Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba, with a combined capacity of 38.5 million kw.

Cascades of dams are also planned or being built on tributaries of the Yangtze, including the Jialing, Wu, Yalong and Min rivers. For instance, seven dams are proposed for the upper Min River, and 21 dams for the Yalong valley. Sooner or later, terraced dams are also going to appear even in the sub-tributaries of the tributaries. For example, a series of 17 dams is planned for the main channel of the Dadu River, while 27 dams are planned for two tributaries of the Min River: nine dams on the Mabian and 18 on the Qingyi. Tributaries of the Yalong River have also been targeted, with six dams planned for the Jiulong River and 11 for the Litang.

In Yunnan province, as many as 15 terraced hydro projects will be built with a total capacity of 25.6 million kw on the main channel of the Lancang River, while a series of dams is also planned on the middle and lower reaches of the Nu River. A similar situation is shaping up on the Jialing and Wu rivers, as well as on their tributaries.

Building cascades of dams has become the pattern of future development not only on the upper Yangtze and the Pearl but also in the Lancang and Nu river basins. If the current trend is allowed to continue, the Yangtze, Pearl, Lancang, Nu and Hongshui will no longer be natural rivers; they will be like staircases — a series of sections interrupted by hydro stations. So the water of the Yangtze will no longer come from heaven [1] but from these “steps,” and our free-flowing rivers will disappear forever.

No serious consideration of the consequences

The driving force behind this messy free-for-all in southwest China is the pursuit of economic gain. Driven by the profit motive, the dam builders are racing ahead with scant regard for environmental safety in the river valleys or possible changes in the power market. Such shortsighted and unchecked development could lead to endless trouble in the future.

Constructing a series of dams on the upper Min River caused sections of the river to run dry, making a dry valley even drier. In addition, the waste produced during the construction was simply dumped along the river, becoming material that could obstruct the passage of floodwater in the waterway and, even more seriously, create a new source of silt to clog up the next reservoir.

The section between Wenchuan and Maoxian in the upper reaches of the Min is composed mostly of metamorphic rock, and is a geologically weak, environmentally sensitive, landslide-prone area. A surge in disturbances, especially the construction activities related to the dam projects, has made a bad situation much worse and triggered new geological disasters.

Moreover, building dams in the heart of environmental protection zones — and in world natural heritage sites — invites not only environmental but also political and social problems. In such areas, we have stressed the importance of environmental protection, while in practice we have never ceased harming the natural environment. Is that in line with the values of the scientific development we are pursuing?

No room left for endangered species

The upper reaches of the Yangtze and the Pearl rivers, and both the Lancang and Nu rivers, are important habitats for aquatic life that thrives in fast-flowing water. There are 153 fish species — including 44 species unique to the Yangtze — in the main channel of the river alone, where their breeding habitats are also concentrated. The widespread construction of hydropower stations, especially in the form of terraced dams, has left these species little room for survival. Construction of the Xiluodu and Xiangjiaba dams on the Jinsha River [upper Yangtze], for example, is making the “Yangtze Hejiang-Leibo rare fish species protection zone” much smaller, with the breeding habitats almost totally destroyed.

Experts have repeatedly urged that the Chishui River [a Yangtze tributary, located mostly in Guizhou province] should be designated a protection zone for rare fish species. They have also advocated that, if such a zone is created, no further disturbance be allowed on the Chishui. The government has not followed scientists’ advice on this, however, and few people believe that disturbances will cease on the river even if it is named a protection zone. It is sad that southwest China, famous for its flourishing river networks, will no longer have a single river left to act as a refuge for endangered aquatic life, and rare fish species in particular.

Nobody listens to opposing views

The above situation has attracted the attention not only of ecologists and environmentalists, but also of economists, sociologists and the media. They are calling for more attention to be paid to improving comprehensive planning, scientific feasibility studies and good governance — but unfortunately nobody is willing to listen. It has become routine in China that the decision-makers and the builders of hydropower projects pay close attention to the proponents of such schemes, but turn a deaf ear to critics. Experts with divergent views (let alone opponents of such schemes) are not invited to take part in feasibility studies for hydro projects in general, and large dams in particular.

It is interesting to note that almost all the experts who have expressed views about the Three Gorges project that diverge from the official position have never been invited to take part in any other feasibility studies or subsequent environmental assessments. Local governments and the authorities in charge of proposed hydro projects only want to invite the participation of “yes men,” to help push the schemes forward, while those who view the projects with a more critical eye are excluded. This is a long-standing and peculiar situation, which by now is just taken for granted in China.

As we saw above, in the name of the grand strategy to develop the west, local governments and power companies are eager to build hydro dams, leading to the messy development of the sector in southwest China. These activities are driven not only by the desire to turn a profit, but also by the “conventional wisdom” in a number of areas. But, as we will see below, these generally accepted notions are far from comprehensive or scientific.

Do dam projects help promote the local economy?

Local governments like the idea of building hydro stations, especially small dams, in the hope of accelerating the development of the local economy. However, whether local owners will actually be able to sell to the grid the electricity generated from small dams is uncertain given that the grids are controlled either by the national or regional grid companies.

Unchecked development of hydropower resources could lead to a glut on the market, with many regions unable to sell their hydroelectricity as a result. Local hydro project owners would then face a dilemma: In the wet summer season, they could produce abundant power but have difficulty selling it. And in the dry season, there would be demand for their electricity but they wouldn’t have enough water to run the turbines and produce the power.

Many hydro stations in the southwest are built with bank loans, and the revenue generated from the projects cannot even cover the interest on the loans. How can owners make a profit from hydro stations in such circumstances?

Can dams help lift the poor out of poverty?

Since the founding of the People’s Republic, the unfortunate fact is that the construction of dams, large or small, has resulted in many “leftover problems,’ with those problems outweighing the project benefits. Over the past 50 years, more than 16 million people have been displaced by dams of various types, and as many as 10 million of those people are still living in poverty. And the reason is simple: Peasants living in hills and mountains lost the very ground on which their lives depended when the rising reservoirs flooded their farmland in the river valley. The planners and builders of the dams tended to focus narrowly on the project itself, and were reluctant to compensate the affected groups appropriately and adequately.

While it is true that local governments can benefit from the project-related resettlement schemes and from the construction of new towns, it is also the case that local officials associated with resettlement operations tend to grab the opportunity to pocket some of the public funds earmarked for the schemes. Dam construction projects have become breeding grounds for corruption and degenerate behaviour.

The majority of the affected people, meanwhile, are unable to benefit from the projects in any way. They would love to be able to say “thank you very much” for these projects — if only the schemes that had caused such upheaval in their lives had not actually made their lives worse.

Do dams help beautify the environment and boost tourism?

Building a dam may create an artificial lake, which itself may provide tourism-development opportunities and produce economic benefits, as the case of Qiandaohu [2] has shown. Most medium and small dams, however, do more harm than good. Far from creating charming attractions, they actually threaten the safety of riverbanks.

Some medium and large-scale hydro projects do create sizable reservoirs, but the water quality worsens along with the increasing pollution. The Three Gorges project is a case in point. I wonder whether the revenue generated from the increased tourism can compensate for the amount that has to be spent to deal with the pollution in the reservoir. And nobody knows for sure what ecological disasters may take place in the reservoir area and in the valley below the dam due to unchecked development activities.

Will dams help promote high-energy-consuming industries?

A number of regions in China believe that producing more electricity will lead to the expansion of high-energy-consuming industries such as steel and aluminum-smelting, building materials and so forth. In reality, located as they are in remote mountainous areas, many regions that built hydro dams have difficulty developing those industries because of a lack of the requisite mineral resources, restricted access to the outside world and a low technological level. Moreover, it’s hard for enterprises in these regions to compete with those located in more developed regions in terms of transport costs, economies of scale and access to investment, technology and information.

Do dam projects help local governments obtain state funds?

Yes, and this is the very reason that so many areas are falling over each other to build dams, regardless of whether the projects are feasible or beneficial. Local governments are good at coming up with “fishing projects,” whereby they use an existing project as a reason to request further funding from higher authorities. They will usually claim that the anticipated goals and benefits of an existing project cannot be achieved unless a further proposed scheme is also built. In this way, local governments are able to extract additional funds to build more dams.

Based on all of the above, I believe it is time to bring this chaotic situation under control — the sooner the better, and the more strictly the better. A serious approach is called for in tackling this problem, including tough measures and scientific methods. Hydro projects in the southwest should be studied carefully, planned scientifically and constructed flawlessly. The broad principles should be:

  1. to carefully select several “super projects,” along with an appropriate number of medium-sized dams, while strictly limiting the number of terraced projects and resisting the urge to sprinkle small dams all over the place;
  2. no hydro projects at all should be allowed in environmental protection zones and environmentally sensitive areas;
  3. the environmental assessment law should be strictly enforced, and proposed projects should be turned down if even one participating expert argues against it; and
  4. the builders of dams should be responsible for compensation, repair and restoration of the environment after completion of the project.

[1] Tang dynasty poet Li Bai wrote that “the water of the Yellow River comes from heaven, empties into the sea and never returns.”

[2] Qiandaohu (Thousand Island Lake), west of Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, was formed as a result of the construction of the Xinanjiang dam in 1959.

A shorter version of this article appeared in Chinese in Science Times (Kexue shibao) on Dec. 17, 2004.

Translated by Three Gorges Probe.

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