Dams and Landslides

China’s dam spree continues

(August 24, 2010) The Chinese government is forging ahead with its ambitious and controversial plans for development on its rivers, writes Brady Yauch.

China’s dams have been plagued by environmental catastrophes, civil unrest and billions of dollars in cost overruns, causing officials to slow down their break-neck dam construction plans, for a time. But now, according to reports from state media, with public relations targets for renewable energy projects to meet, China is gearing up to expedite approvals for hydro projects in the second half of this year.

Two of the country’s big five power companies, Huaneng and Huadian—parents of Huaneng Power International and Huadian Power—were recently granted environmental clearances for dams that they were previously forced to put on ice.

According to state media, the dams— Jin’anqiao in Yunnan and Zangmushui in Tibet—were the first approvals in more than two years.

“It seems the central government’s attitude towards hydropower has warmed again. It’s expected to speed up approvals,” said an official with China Society for Hydropower Engineering.

Whether or not the government’s slowdown on approvals led to a slowdown in construction is debatable. A number of reports suggest that construction on dams has continued for years, despite not receiving approvals from the central government.

The Jin’anqiao dam—one of eight dams planned for the middle Jinsha—began construction in 2004 without approval from the central government. Only after media outlets began reporting on its unauthorized construction did government officials begin an investigation.

In April of 2009, Liu Jianxiang, a leading Chinese environmentalist and journalist, and a group of citizens, including NGOs, journalists, local entrepreneurs and farmers, organized a tour to investigate the middle Jinsha, where the Jin’anqiao dam is located.

“We discovered several hydropower stations being constructed illegally,” he said. “At the Liyuan dam site we found waste produced by construction activities discharging into the river without treatment, and the river water seriously polluted.

Construction on other dams, including the Ludila and Longkaikou—also both on the Jinsha River—has also proceeded, without receiving the necessary approval from central government officials and undergoing proper environmental assessments. Last year, after China’s environment ministry called for construction on the dams to be halted until proper environmental studies were conducted, citizens groups issued photos showing that construction was continuing.

Meanwhile, China’s enthusiasm for hydro dams abroad has only accelerated to the point where China is today the world’s largest funder of dams—surpassing even the World Bank. And, like its domestic projects, many of the dams China is pursuing overseas are highly contentious—often involving the destruction of sensitive habitats and the displacement of thousands of people.

According to a report from Survival International, China’s Three Gorges Project Corporation, builder of the controversial Three Gorges is contracted to build a dam on the land of the Penan tribe in Sarawak, while China’s biggest state bank, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, is considering funding Gibe III in Ethiopia, which is expected to be Africa’s tallest dam and will destroy the livelihood of at least eight tribes.

And according to International Rivers, Chinese banks and companies are involved in the construction of 216 large dams in 49 different countries—with their strongest foothold in Africa and Southeast Asia.

China’s ambitions for hydro development at home have also been spurred on by the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a supposed market-based tool that issues carbon credits to hydro project developers in the developing world for eschewing carbon based electricity generation. According to one report, China has proposed at least 763 hydro projects that are currently being considered for approval by the UN CDM office. By 2012, the report says, these projects will generate more than 300 million certified emission reductions (CER) which are currently worth as much as $4-billion.

According to Probe International’s carbon credit database, China has already received around 10.5 million carbon credits for more than 80 hydrodam projects. In total, these credits are worth at least $130-million.

Update: According to the state-run China Daily, China plans to increase its installed hydropower capacity by 90 percent to 380 million kW by 2020 in order to meet its pledge last year to generate 15 percent of its power from non-fossil sources by the end of the decade.

Brady Yauch, Probe International, August 24, 2010.

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