Beijing Water

China’s water schemes beginning to resemble a house of mirrors

(August 5, 2010) As Beijing’s water crisis continues to worsen, officials are forging ahead with a number of controversial water diversion projects to remedy the problem, writes Brady Yauch.

A new report translated by Probe International shows the number, complexity and costs of new or proposed water diversion and hydroelectric projects on China’s water resources are facing growing criticism from scientists, officials and residents over the potential environmental and ecological fallout.

A number of scientists have also expressed concern at the quality of the data used to evaluate the projects.

According to the report, raising the height of the Danjiangkou dam on the Han River, and increasing its reservoir capacity—a vital component to the central leg of China’s ambitious South-North Water Diversion Scheme (SNWD)—will result in a 26% reduction of the Han’s river flow, downstream of the dam.

The reduced water flow will render a number of downstream water facilities—including water plants for water supply and irrigation facilities—useless, as both water quality and shipping conditions will be drastically altered by the change. It may also push a third of the river’s fish species to extinction.

Relying on outdated hydrological data collected between 1956 and 1990, officials are unable to fully understand the extent of ecological and hydrological impacts of a higher Danjiangkou dam and its subsequent water diversions to the north. Some experts, for example, say the flow of the Han River may be 10% less than official figures.

A never-ending cycle of projects

Adding to concerns over water transfers from the Danjiangkou reservoir, are the countless other projects underway both upstream and downstream of the dam—part of the SNWD diversion that will include transfers from the Han River to the Wei River in upstream Shaanxi Province, transfers from the Yangtze River near Jingzhou City, via a canal to the Han River near Qianjiang City, and transfers from the Shennongxi stream in the Three Gorges reservoir to the Han via the Du River

The report also says a series of eight hydroelectric projects are either already underway or proposed for the middle and lower stretches of the Han River in Hubei Province—part of a bid to increase the number of reservoirs in the area and expand capacity for electricity generation.

Shaanxi Province, upstream of the Danjiangkou dam, is also forging ahead with a series of seven dams on the Han River. All of these dam projects, except for one, have been built or are under construction.

In total, the 1,000 kilometre main channel of the Han River will be dotted with 15 dams. On one particular 150-kilometre stretch between Xangfan City, a total of four dams will be built.

The situation is even more crowded for the Han’s tributaries, the proposed home for more than 900 small hydropower stations.

Upon closer examination…just as bad

The report also provides a detailed account of the effects of the water diversions on one city along the Han River’s banks. Xiangfan City, which sits below the Danjiangkou dam, will see average water levels of its section of the Han fall by 0.31 to 0.51 metres, while the quality of water in the same section is expected to drop a whole grade. The groundwater table is also expected to fall by 0.25 to 0.41 metres.

The report also predicts as many as 21 water plants, 39 pumping stations and 1,680 motor-pumped wells will become obsolete or struggle to obtain the necessary water to continue operating.

To help ease the impact of the water diversions officials will build four dams within its section of the Han River—with the hope of storing water for local use and maintaining shipping routes.

One of these dams, the Cuijiaying, is located just 17 kilometres south of downtown Xiangfan. With a budget of 2.06 billion yuan ($304-million), the Cuijiaying dam began filling its reservoir in May 2010 and generating power in July. Since then, reports have shown that the dam’s reservoir is not only storing more water, but also more pollution. In the past, this water was flushed downstream, but now it sits in the dam’s reservoir near the city.

Residents living closeby are most concerned about the cleanliness of their drinking water supply, as the city’s water intake is located in Cuijiaying reservoir. Confirming these fears, several experts in the city have warned that the quality of water in the river around Xiangfan is getting worse and would most likely be downgraded.

Officials have responded with yet more water projects—this time diverting water from the Danjiangkou reservoir, about 100 km upstream, for local use. But to date, the plan has yet to be implemented, as officials are short hundreds of million of yuan.

Hanging the fish out to dry

The impact on local fish species of the dozens of water projects on the Han River will be dramatic, says the report. Experts in Hubei province have warned that the number of fish species will decline by one-third and the population of fish will decrease by as much as two-thirds in the middle and lower reaches of the Han River, below the Danjiangkou dam. They say the reasons for the decline in fish populations are varied, but they quickly point to a decrease in water temperatures and smaller breeding habitats as major contributors.

But Cao Wenxuan, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and senior researcher at the Academy’s Wuhan-based Institute of Hydrobiology, says any estimate on the impact of the dams and diversions on fish populations will likely be inaccurate, as there have been no major studies in recent years. Scientists are, instead, often relying on data  from the 1970s and 1980s.

“Currently there are how many species of fish in the Han River? We don’t know. And how many species and how many of such species will be affected and may even be on the brink of extinction? We also have no idea,” he said in an interview. “Forging ahead with projects, one by one, without any understanding of their effects would cause more harm to fish species and their habitat.”

Prof. Cao is calling on the government to implement a systematic study of project impacts on the region’s aquatic life.

Prof. Cao also says officials are misleading the public in their claims about ensuring the safety of fish populations. For example, he says, officials claim they are prepared to build channels for migrating fish such as herring and eels, but herring have yet to appear in the Hubei section of the Yangtze and eels don’t need a fish channel at all.

To read the full report, go here.

Brady Yauch, Probe International

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