Three Gorges Probe

Experts cast doubt over benefits of hydropower

(November 24, 2010) As China’s government continues its push for “green” energy, the construction of dams are increasingly becoming the preferred method to do so. But a growing chorus of critics are openly questing the environmental credentials of hydro power.

When the Ministry of Environmental Protection suspended the construction of the Ludila and Longkaikou hydropower stations last year, environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief, believing that the ecology of the Jinsha River in Yunnan Province had been saved.

However, their joy would prove short-lived. Authorities recently approved a number of similar projects, leading to fears that the two suspended stations would get the green light in the near future.

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) confirmed on its website earlier that it has approved construction of two stations – the Jin’anqiao Hydropower Station on the Jinsha River, upstream of the Yangtze River, and the Zangmu Hydropower Station on the Yarlung Zangbo River in the Tibet Autonomous Region. Seven other stations are planned for the Jinsha River.

Others, such as the Songta Hydropower Station on the Nu River in Tibet, could also receive official approval in the near future, National Financial Weekly, published by the Xinhua News Agency, reported earlier.

All this is a result of China setting itself the target of generating 15 percent of its power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.

Promoting the use of cleaner energy is one of the aims of the nation’s 12th five-year plan (2011 to 2015). If that is to be achieved, the capacity of the hydroelectric system should reach 380 million kilowatts by 2020, said National Energy Administration director Zhang Guobao earlier.

Many of the proposed stations are located in Yunnan, home to more than 600 rivers that form six major river basin systems. The province possesses 24 percent of China’s hydropower potential. The Nu, Lancang and Jinsha have some of the biggest scope to produce hydropower, according to a study by Yu Xiaogang, director of non-governmental group Green Watershed.

“I am not against all hydropower station construction, but we need adequate scientific research and plans to decide where to build them so people can benefit to the full extent,” Liu Shukun, a professor at the China Institute of Water Resources and Hydropower Research, told the Global Times.

Environmental fallout

Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, told the Global Times that once a hydropower station is built, a running river turns into a still lake. This does not bode well for the 161 species of fish that inhabit the Jinsha River.

When the Gezhouba Hydropower Station was built in Yichang, Hubei Province, in 1989, the river flow was altered and the Chinese sturgeon vanished from the upper stream of the Yangtze River.

“Some fish species that only live in torrential rivers will disappear and the river will lose its biodiversity,” an anonymous fish expert told the Global Times Tuesday.

The ecological fallout is not limited to within China. A report released last month by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental group, said the dams in Yunnan’s Lancang River will influence the timing and scale of the natural Mekong pulse to which many other natural, social and economic components of the system are tuned.

The dams will reduce the sediment and nutrient load reaching Kratie in Cambodia from China to 22 percent of current levels, the report said.

It suggested that Lao, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand defer decisions to build dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River for 10 years.

Large-scale hydropower projects in Southwest China have already attracted the attention of, and in some cases disputes with, neighboring countries.

Hong Lei, a spokesman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said China has always fully considered the concerns of countries along the lower reaches of the Mekong River in its water-resources exploitation.

China Huaneng Group, the prime contractor for the hydropower station project in Yarlung Zangbo River, said water flow downstream will not be affected.

Pros and cons

While officials have stressed that hydropower projects will stimulate local economic development, experts counter that many local residents are actually worse off because of them.

Yu, whose green group conducted a study examining the impact of dams on 7,000 people whose houses were demolished and another 30,000 whose farmlands were swallowed up by waters in 2002 and 2003, found that many of them are now living in poverty. With their homes and farmlands gone, many affected residents have had to change jobs, sometimes with terrible consequences.

“They could originally depend on the farmland to support generations of their family,” Yu told the Global Times. “Now some of them can only earn a living by picking up rubbish.”

Ma said some local governments have brought in high energy-consuming industries to areas with hydropower, and these industries have caused so much pollution that it has actually offset the benefit the projects were originally intended to bring.

Fan Xiao, the chief engineer of the Sichuan Geology and Mineral Bureau, said dam projects also increase the risk of mudslides because of the associated geographical change. “But it is expected that all these projects will go ahead. The NDRC and the Ministry of Environmental Protection cannot bring a halt to all these projects, given the huge interest of local governments and power companies involved.”

Zhang, the National Energy Administration director, said that the environmental impact of the hydropower stations has been exaggerated, and China is merely doing what other countries did in the 1960s, the Shanghai-based First Financial Daily reported earlier.

Ma suggested that in the future, the central government introduce a transparent decision-making process for hydropower projects.

Read the original article here.

Fu Wen and Teddy Ng, Global Times, November 24, 2010

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