Dams and Landslides

Three Gorges Power Corp admits hydro dams too costly

(May 23, 2009) China Three Gorges Project Corporation vice-general manager has made a stunning admission: Relocating people and protecting the environment has made large-scale hydro projects too costly to warrant further investment.

The increasing social impact of hydropower, including paying compensation for relocated people, along with other political changes, has had an impact on the safety of investment,” Bi Yaxiong, said today at a conference in China, reports Reuters [PDF].

The state-owned CTGPC was set up by China’s cabinet, the State Council in 1993 to oversee construction of the Three Gorges dam, the world’s largest and most controversial hydropower project. It appears now that the authorities are ruing the high costs of the Three Gorges project, which required the flooding of large areas of fertile farmland and forced more than a million people to move, says Reuters.

The Chinese government has also acknowledged the increased threats of landslides, the disruption of fragile ecosystems, water quality problems and even increased seismic activity in the region.

It isn’t a completely harmless phenomenon, and the possibility of geological disaster is unavoidable,” Bi said.

Bi’s announcement comes on the heels of Premier Wen Jiabao’s announcement earlier this week that construction of the Liuku dam on the Nu (or Salween) River in Yunnan in a UNESCO World Heritage site would be halted until careful environmental and social assessments are done. Environmentalists and citizens alike who have been making the same case – that the cost of megadams outweighs the benefits – will surely welcome the admission. But for the tens of millions of Chinese citizens who have already been moved and impoverished by large dams, or who now live with the threat of landslides and deadly dam-induced earthquakes, the lesson comes too late.

The demise of China’s ruinous hydro construction program will be accompanied by more emphasis on nuclear power, Mr. Bi announced, a decision that will keep China’s power program embroiled in controversy. Nuclear power and mega hydro dams both carry enormous environmental risks. Moreover, they are both uneconomic technologies that the private sector does not invest in without massive subsidies, including exemption from liability and monopoly powers to keep out cheaper, cleaner, smaller scale alternatives. Those alternatives – a mix of renewables, clean coal, cogeneration facilities, and high efficiency gas turbines, for starters – would provide reliable power at lower prices to more people, faster.

This decentralized approach requires transparent regulation, opening up the electricity markets to competition, and rule of law. China could do it, but not with its state-controlled monopolies in place.

Patricia Adams, Probe International, May 23, 2009

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